Were you surprised by the sheer volume of vitriolic tweets about President Trump’s decision to use the phrase “Chinese virus”? Well, one London-based Chinese businessman/dissident says he has evidence that might explain this phenomenon, and shed some light on how Beijing manipulates social media platforms to exploit and shape public opinion far beyond the borders of the mainland.
China has been using armies of “bot” accounts on platforms like twitter to harass and criticize those who speak out against the Chinese government in Beijing and its handling of the outbreak, and spread disinformation about the origins of the virus that – you guessed it – blame the American military for unleashing the virus in Wuhan.
The dissident said that during the week before last, he identified more than 1,000 bot accounts on Twitter which he believes to be part of a government-backed “Swarm”. He’s also identified dozens of suspicious pages on Facebook.
Between April 25 and May 3, Strick said he identified more than 1,000 accounts on Twitter that were associated with the Chinese disinformation effort, as well as more than 50 different pages on Facebook. He estimated that 300 or 400 new Twitter accounts were joining the network each day, as part of the Chinese campaign.
“The network has evolved and is still growing,” said Strick, in an interview. “I believe it’s a state-backed Chinese campaign.”
Strick said his research is just the latest to highlight one aspect of China’s sweeping propaganda campaign to rewrite history as far as the virus is concerned. Yet, liberals who complain constantly about Fox News brainwashing are acting as the CCP’s “useful idiots” by amplifying these fake voices.
Strick’s work is the latest research suggesting China has ramped up disinformation around the coronavirus, to dilute their own culpability and shift blame elsewhere, although some have cast doubt on certain findings or suggested they may warrant further investigation.
In research published last week on the investigative website Bellingcat, Strick described the operation as a “well-structured information campaign” that was working in a coordinated way “to skew the narrative around varying topics, and to push set agendas.”
The operation bears some of the same hallmarks as a network of 900 accounts that Twitter uncovered in August last year, which the company identified as “a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong,” operated from mainland China.
And get this: A cybersecurity analyst quoted by BBG said the spam bot campaigns resembled the MO of an infamous Beijing-backed group known in the industry as “Spamouflague Dragon”.
Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika Inc., said the accounts identified by Strick appeared to be linked to a network known as “Spamouflage Dragon,” which was previously identified promoting attacks on Hong Kong protesters by using hijacked and fake accounts on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
In a September 2019 report, Graphika described Spamouflague Dragon as “an active and prolific, but ultimately low-impact, cross-platform political spam network,” whose actions “appeared designed to support the Chinese government and discredit its critics, both at home and abroad.”
For what it’s worth, China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the claims as “unfounded” (shocker), and Twitter affirmed that while it’s working tirelessly to crack down on these malicious, foreign-influence-spreading bots, the company is preoccupied right now with silencing conservative voices.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday called reports of a Chinese disinformation campaign “completely unfounded.”
“China opposes disinformation,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing. “As to Chinese officials opening accounts on Twitter and other social media platforms, the purpose is to better communicate with the world and introduce China’s situation and policies. We want to strengthen communication and exchange with the outside world to enhance our mutual understanding.”
A Twitter Inc. spokesperson said in a statement that it was working to “pro-actively monitor” the platform “to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them.”
“If we identify information campaigns on our service that we can reliably attribute to state-backed activity either domestic or foreign-led, we will disclose them,” the spokesperson said.
Facebook Inc. didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Strick said many of the accounts were focused on attacking Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman, now based in the U.S., who is a fierce critic of the ruling Communist Party government. The accounts were also promoting baseless claims linking vaping and Covid-19, as well as amplifying conspiracy theories about biosecurity incidents in the U.S. under the hashtags #coronavirus and #TruthAboutCovid.
The accounts also promoted content that included criticism of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Many of the accounts on Twitter, he said, had Chinese names and posted content in both English and Chinese, while other accounts in the network used Russian account names written in the Cyrillic alphabet, possibly to deflect attribution of the accounts away from China.
On May 8, the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center said it had identified “a new network of inauthentic accounts” on Twitter, which it said we “created with the intent to amplify Chinese propaganda and disinformation.” It isn’t clear if the accounts were the same ones identified by Strick.
Want to learn more about how to spot a bot? For regular users of social media, the process should be fairly easy, but many still mistake bots for humans (that’s why they’re still effective). Strick offers some advice above on how to spot a bot.
But we suspect that as we get closer to election day, this “inference” from China (which hasn’t generated anywhere near the outcry that the (now proven to be total bs) ‘Russia collusion’ narrative, you’ll notice) will become even more widespread.