China is employing thousands of Twitter bots as part of its disinformation campaign to portray itself as the leader in global coronavirus recovery efforts instead of the source of the pandemic, according to an analysis by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
“We have identified a new network of inauthentic accounts on Twitter, most likely designed to amplify [People’s Republic of China] propaganda and disinformation related to the pandemic,” said State Department Press Secretary Morgan Ortagus during a conference call with reporters on Friday.
She said the accounts are used to paint China’s response to the coronavirus in a positive light and to criticize anti-PRC content.
“From promoting conspiracy websites to the use of trolls and bot networks to pushing false narratives…Beijing is engaged in an aggressive media campaign to try and reshape the global narrative around COVID,” said Lea Gabrielle, State Department special envoy and coordinator of the GEC.
The GEC looked at the most recent followers for 36 Twitter accounts run by Chinese foreign ministry officials or Chinese embassies, and found that many of those accounts experienced a “major surge” in the number of new followers since March, when Beijing’s overseas messaging efforts on coronavirus kicked off, she said.
The GEC’s analysis found that starting in March, the number of recently-created new followers for these accounts went from an average of 30 per day to over 720 per day — a 22-fold increase.
Both the sudden increase of followers and a very recent creation of many of these accounts points to an artificial network being established to follow and to amplify narratives from Chinese diplomats and foreign ministry officials, especially at a time when China is adopting Russian style disinformation techniques to sow confusion and to try to convince people that COVID didn’t originate in China.
The analysis found that nearly every Chinese diplomatic account shares at least one follower with every other account, with some of them sharing more than 1,000 followers — suggesting that those followers are bots, not authentic people.
For example, two accounts linked to the foreign ministry — @zlj517 and @spokespersonCHN — share 3,423 of their most recent 10,000 followers. Further, nearly 40 percent of the most recent followers were created in just a six-week-period between the first of March and the 15th of April 2020, the analysis found.
“It is our assessment that this network could be deployed to allow the CCP to rapidly amplify and spread messages around the world, skewing the conversation to its benefit,” Gabrielle said.
She compared China’s disinformation campaign to a “one way megaphone” from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into “free, open, and democratic societies” comparable to its decades-long efforts to control information within its own borders.
But, she said, its global efforts are largely backfiring.
“In many places, we see that foreign governments, academics, and media call out CCP disinformation and propaganda,” she said.
“It’s critical that we continue to draw attention to the CCP’s increasing use of disinformation and other Russian-style tactics like these inauthentic social media amplification networks to prevent these behaviors from becoming the norm in Beijing,” she said.
The GEC also continues to track a growing convergence between false Chinese and Russian narratives and tactics.
Gabrielle said at the beginning of coronavirus pandemic, Chinese allowed Russian disinformation claiming that the U.S. was the source of the virus to spread around on Chinese social media.
Then, she said, the CCP began raising questions themselves on state media about the virus’s origin, and then began promoting disinformation that the U.S. is the source of the virus.
“At the same time, we saw Beijing unleashing a drumbeat of pro-PRC content across its global media networks and from its overseas missions that included increasingly vocal criticism about democratic countries and how they’re responding to the crisis,” she said.
Gabrielle said she could not speak as to what Twitter is doing, but that State Department has shared information with the company.
But, she added, the GEC is looking not at any one platform, but the “entire disinformation ecosystem.”
“The disinformation ecosystem problem is much bigger than any one platform,” she said.