China's ruling Communist Party (CPC) has been using fake fans to boost profiles on Twitter, a study has found.
A joint investigation by the Associated Press and Oxford University found CPC's rise on the platform has been powered by an army of fake accounts, that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times.
China makes use of both state-controlled media outlets and over 270 diplomatic accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to amplify their perspective on global affairs and current events.
The seven-month investigation found false accounts were covertly amplifying propaganda through social media, potentially reaching hundreds of millions of people - often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.
Liu Xiaoming is China’s Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs. He joined Twitter in 2019 and has since racked up more than 119,000 followers.
More than half of Xiaoming's retweets between June 2020 to January 2021 came from accounts that had been suspended from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules, which prohibit manipulation.
Xiaoming was retweeted more than 43,000 times, from June 2020 to February 2021 alone.
Following Twitters action on some fake accounts, an additional cluster of fake accounts appeared, many of them framed as UK citizens.
These accounts continued to push Chinese government content before Twitter took action to remove them.
False online popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating an illusion of broad support.
Twitter's algorithms also boost the distribution of popular posts, meaning using fake accounts can manipulate the reach of these posts.
Twitter told The Associated Press that many of the accounts had been sanctioned for manipulation but declined to offer details on what other platform violations may have been at play.
Twitter also said it was investigating whether the activity was a state-affiliated information operation.
“We will continue to investigate and action accounts that violate our platform manipulation policy, including accounts associated with these networks,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement.
“If we have clear evidence of state-affiliated information operations, our first priority is to enforce our rules and remove accounts engaging in this behaviour. When our investigations are complete, we disclose all accounts and content in our public archive,” they added.