Twitter removes 170,000 accounts that spammed for Beijing

Domestic News

Twitter tamps down on apparent increase in Chinese state disinformation campaigns related to Hong Kong civil unrest

Twitter announced today that it had removed tens of thousands of accounts — almost all of them newer and with low follower numbers — that it said were part of a “state-linked information operation” by Beijing.

  • 23,750 “highly engaged” accounts were “largely caught early and failed to achieve considerable traction on the service,” according to Twitter.
  • “Approximately 150,000 accounts” were essentially bots that served as “amplifiers” of content.
  • “In general, this entire network was involved in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities,” Twitter said. “They were Tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favorable to the Communist Party of China (CCP), while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.”

This is the second time that Twitter has done a large-scale sweep of disinformation-spreading accounts linked to Beijing. Last August, the company said it had identified and removed 936 highly active accounts and approximately 200,000 “spammy” accounts that primarily attempted to discredit the Hong Kong protesters.

One way that Twitter identified the accounts, according to the New York Times (porous paywall), is “by observing how users log in to their accounts…some of the accounts used Twitter from specific unblocked internet protocol addresses [in China]. Because Twitter is not permitted in China, an unblocked address can hint that the accounts are acting with government approval.”

These accounts focused on praising Beijing’s COVID-19 response, according to the NYT, though they “were generally not sophisticated enough to fool a viewer into believing they were operated by real people.”

Despite the bans, “new and repurposed accounts have already emerged on Twitter and Facebook to disseminate the same kind of messaging that seeks to spin current events, such as the civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, to Beijing’s advantage,” according to research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute cited in the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any wrongdoing. “China’s efforts to combat COVID-19 and the results it achieved are real and witnessed by all,” spokesperson Huà Chūnyíng 华春莹 said, citing a State Council white paper that contained a sanitized timeline of China’s COVID-19 response. Hua then implied that Twitter’s criteria for identifying disinformation-spreading accounts was merely that they had been “praising China’s anti-epidemic efforts,” and insisted that instead, “What should be shut down is precisely the accounts that attack and smear China in an organized and coordinated manner.”