Twitter deletes 170,000 accounts linked to Chinese disinformation campaigns

Pakistan Forward and AFP

This photo shows Twitter logos on a computer screen in Beijing. [NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP]

This photo shows Twitter logos on a computer screen in Beijing. [NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP]

Twitter Friday (June 12) said it had deleted more than 170,000 accounts linked to Chinese government disinformation campaigns.

Twitter -- along with YouTube, Google and Facebook -- is banned in China, which uses a "Great Firewall" to restrict access to news and information.

But Chinese diplomats and state media have flocked to such platforms in recent years to push Beijing's narrative.

Researchers and some Western governments have voiced fears that the Chinese regime deploys networks of state-controlled or state-linked accounts that masquerade as genuine users to spread government messaging or disinformation.

Twitter said it had dismantled "state-linked" networks run by a "highly engaged core" of 23,750 accounts and boosted by a further 150,000 "amplifier" accounts.

The network was most recently pushing Beijing's narrative on the Hong Kong protests but earlier did the same for the coronavirus pandemic.

"While the Chinese Communist Party won't allow the Chinese people to use Twitter, our analysis shows it is happy to use it to sow propaganda and disinformation internationally," wrote Fergus Hanson, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) cyber centre.

Most of the tweets from the network were written during Chinese working hours, largely on weekdays, said ASPI.

"Such a regimented posting pattern clearly suggests inauthenticity and coordination," it added.

On Friday, Beijing's Foreign Ministry criticised Twitter's decision, saying China was "the biggest victim of disinformation".

Growing evidence of deception

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an analysis of 4,600 accounts that engaged with Chinese leaders and diplomats on Twitter.

The paper found hundreds of accounts that appeared to operate solely to cheer on and amplify Beijing's leading envoys and state-run news outlets.

Last month, Twitter put a fact-check flag on a tweet written by a Chinese government spokesman pushing a widely discredited conspiracy theory that the US military might have introduced the coronavirus to China.

Last August, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter removed thousands of accounts they said were part of a Chinese-backed campaign primarily focused on spreading misinformation about the Hong Kong protests.

The European Union (EU) Wednesday (June 10) released a report charging that the Chinese and Russian regimes have sought to undermine European democracy and burnish their own reputations during the pandemic with "targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns".

The unusually blunt accusation came in an official EU strategy paper for tackling what officials say is a "flood" of false healthcare claims, conspiracy theories, fraud and hate speech surrounding the coronavirus.

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