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Army of Communist Chinese Twitter bots peddle disinformation about coronavirus origins

Twitter logo. (Dreamstime/TNS)
March 30, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China has set up multiple fake bot accounts on Twitter using Radio Free Asia’s logo and descriptions to tweet fake news in recent months, including allegations that the coronavirus came from the U.S., a recent investigative report has found.

The tweets are sent by accounts using the RFA logo, but named after various regions of China, for example “Radio Free Guangdong,” or “Radio Free Anhui.”

They churn out tweets that reflect the official line of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, including the rumor that the coronavirus pandemic originated in the United States and not in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

The public interest journalism website ProPublica said it had tracked more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts since August 2019 that have been part of a “coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government.”

The report’s co-author Jeff Kao said the hijacking of visual identifiers from legitimate accounts to impersonate them is a hallmark of Beijing’s social media campaigns.

“They changed one of the letters in the Twitter handle and they were posting political messages that were in line with the Chinese government’s views,” Kao told RFA.

“They have very few real followers, but what they were tweeting would get like 100 likes or 20 retweets, and I think that was another tactic that they were trying out,” he said.

For example, a recent post in English reported on aid the Chinese government recently provided to Italy, and was sent by the Twitter handle @RNA_Chinese.

“[The account] appears to have been an attempt to fool the casual reader into believing it was coming from the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia (@RFA_Chinese),” the report said.

Hacked, repurposed accounts

Other accounts tweeting pro-China propaganda were actually once genuine, but had been repurposed after they were hacked, the ProPublic report said.

“They included a professor in North Carolina; a graphic artist and a mother in Massachusetts; a web designer in the U.K.; and a business analyst in Australia,” it said.

“Suspected Chinese operatives have stepped up their efforts in recent days, according to private messages shared with ProPublica, offering influential Chinese-speaking Twitter users cash for favorable posts,” it said.

The article said the fake accounts are tailored to different audiences, but the Chinese-language posts were likely aimed at influencing the “millions of ethnic Chinese” who don’t live in mainland China.

In August and September, Twitter announced that it had suspended more than 5,000 suspected Chinese state-controlled accounts and banned around 200,000 accounts that hadn’t yet been fully activated.

ProPublica said it wrote computer programs to document millions of interactions between the 10,000 suspected fake accounts and trace an interrelated network of more than 2,000.

“The true scale of the influence campaign is likely much bigger; our tracking suggests that the accounts we identified comprise only a portion of the operation,” it said.

“We found a pattern of coordinated activity among the fake accounts that appeared to be aimed at building momentum for particular storylines,” it said.

Among the storylines were the smearing of the Hong Kong protest movement as “rioters” and “separatists,” and praise lavished on the city’s police as they used unprecedented amounts of violence to crack down on largely peaceful protesters.

Yang Jianli, founder of the Washington-based human rights group Citizen Power, said he has been targeted by hackers backed and directed by the Chinese state, although their companies may be nominally listed as private.

“The authorities use a lot of private companies to carry out operations like this, and many are willing to provide this service to the Chinese government,” Yang said.

“Clearly these companies benefit from being under the aegis of government power and privilege,” he said.

Efforts not effective

Kao said the fake accounts aren’t convincing enough yet to be effective, however.

“It’s hard to say that any minds will change … because the accounts look so fake,” he said. “But I think the message was definitely reaching the people that it was trying to reach.”

There are strong links between the Chinese Twitter bots and a Beijing-based internet marketing company called OneSight, as many of the fake accounts had liked its tweets.

The company recently won a U.S.$175,000 contract to boost the Twitter following of the state-run China News Service, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s outreach and influence arm, the United Front Work Department.

On Jan. 29, OneSight announced a new app that tracked virus-related information, and tweeted that it would “transmit the correct voice of China” to the world, just six days after Beijing imposed a lockdown on Wuhan.

“The influence network suddenly shifted its focus to the coronavirus epidemic,” ProPublica said.

A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment specifically when contacted by ProPublica.

“Using technology and human review in concert, we proactively monitor Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“If we identify further information campaigns on our service that we can reliably attribute to state-backed activity either domestic or foreign-led, we will disclose them.”