China has been using its online monitoring tools to gather Americans’ and other Western users’ Facebook and Twitter activities, according to hundreds of documents reviewed and reported by the Washington Post this week.
The Chinese Internet-monitoring tools, known as public opinion analysis software, were reportedly developed over the past decade to warn of sensitive information being spread online to help China find sources of criticisms against the Chinese government. The tools were originally used to monitor internal dissent, but are now being used to gain information on foreign targets.
The Washington Post said it reviewed documents for over 300 Chinese government projects since the start of 2020, including contracts for software to collect data on foreign targets through Twitter, Facebook, and other Western social media platforms. The various documents highlight contracts for more sophisticated monitoring tools for the Chinese military, police, cyber regulators, propaganda departments and state media outlets.
A Beijing analyst who works for a unit reporting to China’s Central Propaganda Department told the Washington Post that with the new software, “Now we can better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel.” The analyst said they were tasked once with producing a data report on how negative views about China’s leaders spread on Twitter, including by individual academics, politicians and journalists.
According to the Washington Post, a $320,000 Chinese state media software program mines data from Twitter and Facebook to gather data on journalists and academics.
Some of the Chinese government’s contracts entail buying and maintaining foreign social media accounts for police and propaganda departments.
The Beijing police placed a $216,000 contract for an intelligence program to analyze Western social media conversations about Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Another contract entails a cyber center in China’s western Xinjiang region, to monitor the primarily Muslim Uyghur minority group’s language content being shared in other countries.
Other contracts entail targeted analyses to refine and improve the spread of Chinese state media coverage abroad.
The various data mining efforts are reportedly part of a broader Chinese effort to improve the power of its foreign propaganda efforts.
Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who has researched China’s domestic public opinion network, told the Washington Post the effort to mine foreign social media data “really shows that they now feel it’s their responsibility to defend China overseas and fight the public opinion war overseas.”
The increased Chinese data mining efforts come at a time of sinking public perceptions of China among many countries. A June Pew Research report revealed perceptions of China among 17 countries with advanced economies remained predominantly negative for a second year in a row, amid international concerns about Hong Kong, the Uyghur population and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May, amid the negative international perceptions, Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on the Chinese government to “trustworthy, lovable and reliable” and an “effective development of international public opinion guidance.”
The term “public opinion guidance” came into popular use in China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent massacre of protesters by Chinese government forces. The term “public opinion guidance work” began to describe a policy of shaping public sentiment of the Chinese government through targeted censorship and propaganda against specific groups.
The term “international public opinion guidance,” suggests an effort to turn that Chinese propaganda and censorship technique outward to the rest of the world.
Twitter and Facebook have both taken some steps to prevent social monitoring tools like those being developed and implemented by China. Both platforms banned unauthorized automated data collection tools. Twitter’s policies now also explicitly bar the use of software tools used to infer a user’s political affiliation or ethnic and racial origin.
“Our [Application Programming Interface] provides real-time access to public data and Tweets only, not private information. We prohibit use of our API for surveillance purposes, as per our developer policy and terms,” Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough told the Washington Post.