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Twitter removes Chinese state-backed disinformation network

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Pro-China supporters take a selfie with a Chinese national flag to support police and anti-violence during a rally at a park in Hong Kong.
Pro-China supporters take a selfie with a Chinese national flag to support police and anti-violence during a rally at a park in Hong Kong.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Vincent Yu
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Twitter has removed more than 23,700 China-backed accounts spreading disinformation on its platform about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and COVID-19, the social media giant announced on Friday.

In total, Twitter has removed 32,242 state-backed accounts, with more than two-third — 23,750 — attributed to Beijing.

"They were tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favourable to the Communist Party of China (CCP), while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong," the company said in a statement.

Twitter said it also shut down 150,000 amplifier accounts "designed to boost this content".

Content from the 23,750 accounts deleted has been archived and shared with researchers at Australia's International Cyber Centre (ASPI) and the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Both noted that the nearly 350,000 tweets emitted from these accounts were topically divided into four main groups: the Hong Kong protests; COVID-19; exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui; and Taiwan.

Stanford researchers flagged that tweet activity around the pandemic ramped up in late January 2020 and spiked in late March. They also highlighted that while the majority of the accounts were created mere weeks before they started tweeting in late January, some had been created as early as September 2019 and had remained dormant until they started sharing about COVID-19.

"Narratives around COVID-19 primarily praise China's response to the virus, and occasionally contrast China's response against that of the US government or Taiwan's response, or use the presence of the virus as a means to attack Hong Kong activists," they wrote in a report.

According to ASPI, the tweets were "mapped cleanly to working hours a Beijing Times" with spikes in posting observed through 8am-5pm Monday to Friday and drop-offs seen at weekends.

"Such a regimented posting pattern clearly suggests coordination and inauthenticity," their report stated.

Audiences in Hong Kong and the broader Chinese diaspora were the main targets of the tweets, ASPI said, as western Western media platforms including Twitter and Facebook are banned in mainland China.

However, the accounts were unsophisticated and most — 78.5% — actually had no followers but ASPI flagged that the disinformation operation also used aged accounts and sought to use them "as the mechanism by which the campaign might gain traction in high-follower networks".

"The large scale pivot to Western platforms is relatively new, and we should expect continued evolution and improvement, given the enormous resourcing the Chinese party-state can bring to bear in aligning state messaging across its diplomacy, state media and covert influence operations," it said.

The other state-backed accounts removed from Twitter originated from Turkey and Russia.