Twitter deletes over 170,000 accounts tied to Chinese propaganda efforts

Twitter announced Thursday that it had deleted more than 170,000 accounts tied to a Chinese state-linked operation that were spreading deceptive information around the COVID-19 virus, political dynamics in Hong Kong, and other issues. 

Almost 25,000 of the accounts that were deleted formed what Twitter described as the “core network,” while around 150,000 accounts were amplifying messages from the core groups. 

“In general, this entire network was involved in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities,” the company wrote in a blog post. “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.” 

Twitter noted that the accounts taken down this week were tied to a Chinese state-backed operation last year that attempted to sow political discord in Hong Kong. Those accounts were also taken down. 

According to an analysis of the accounts by the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), many of the accounts shut down were tweeting about the COVID-19 pandemic, with activity around this issue beginning in late January and reaching its peak in late March. 

The accounts primarily praised China’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. While most of the accounts had less than 10 followers and no bios, the SIO found that they had tweeted almost 350,000 times before being shut down. 

“Narratives around COVID-19 primarily praise China’s response to the virus, and occasionally contrast China’s response against that of the U.S. government or Taiwan’s response, or use the presence of the virus as a means to attack Hong Kong activists,” the SIO wrote in its analysis. “The English-language content included pointed reiterations of the claim that China – not Taiwan – had a superior response to containing coronavirus.”

Twitter on Thursday also shut down thousands of accounts tied to Russian and Turkish state-linked misinformation efforts. 

The over 1,000 Russian accounts removed were tied to state-backed political propaganda within Russia, while the over 7,300 Turkish accounts removed were primarily spreading information favorable to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his political party.

While the amount of Russian and Turkish-linked accounts was less than those tied to China, the Russian and Turkish accounts were found by the SIO to have tweeted a combined almost 40 million times before Twitter took action. 

Twitter said it planned to host a conference later this summer to “bring experts, industry, and government together to discuss opportunities for further collaboration” around removing deceptive state-backed social media campaigns. 

Misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic has run rampant on social media over the past few months. A report from Carnegie Mellon University released last month found that almost half of coronavirus-related tweets were likely from bots. Researchers said that it looked like a “propaganda machine” and resembled past Russian and Chinese misinformation efforts.


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