• By The Financial District


China’s Communist Party has opened a new front in its long, ambitious war to shape global public opinion: Western social media, Erika KInetz reported for the Associated Press (AP) from Brussels.

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A seven-month investigation by AP and the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people — often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.

Twitter’s takedowns of bogus China accounts often came only after weeks or months of activity. All told, AP and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended.

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They accounted for a significant share — sometimes more than half — of the total retweets many diplomatic accounts got on Twitter. It was not possible to determine whether the accounts were sponsored by the Chinese government.

Twitter told AP 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 said it was investigating whether the activity was a state-affiliated information operation.

Twitter and Facebook function as formidable — and one-sided — global megaphones for China’s ruling Communist Party, helping to amplify messaging broadly set by central authorities.

Today, at least 270 Chinese diplomats in 126 countries are active on Twitter and Facebook. Together with Chinese state media, they control 449 accounts on Twitter and Facebook, which posted nearly 950,000 times between June and February.

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These messages were liked over 350 million times and replied to and shared more than 27 million times, according to the Oxford Internet Institute and AP’s analysis. Three-quarters of Chinese diplomats on Twitter joined within the last two years.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it does not employ trickery on social media. “There is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor exporting a model of online public opinion guidance,” the ministry said in a statement to AP.

“We hope that the relevant parties will abandon their discriminatory attitude, take off their tinted glasses, and take a peaceful, objective, and rational approach in the spirit of openness and inclusiveness.” While China makes full use of WeChat and Weibo for its fake reports, it controls Twitter and Facebook operations are blocked in the mainland.


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