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Radio Free Asia

Beijing Ramps up Fake Social Media Operation Peddling Pro-China Propaganda Overseas

2021-05-13 -- China has been using social media networks like Twitter to spread positive propaganda about the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the start of the pandemic, according to a report published by an international press group.

"China successfully activated existing media infrastructures to seed positive narratives globally amid the Covid-19 pandemic," the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in a report published on May 12.

The survey of journalists' unions in 50 countries found that the CCP activated "existing infrastructure" in the wake of the pandemic, including training programs and sponsored trips for journalists, content sharing agreements feeding state-sponsored messages into news networks in other countries, and ownership of publishing platforms.

China is coordinating and tailoring domestic and international content for each country in non-Anglophone languages," the report said, adding that vacuums in overseas media coverage are increasingly being filled by Chinese state-approved content.

The propaganda drive appears to have been successful, with "40 percent of countries respond[ing] that the dominant narrative in their national media was that 'China's fast action against Covid-19 has helped other countries, as has its medical diplomacy'," the report said.

"Beijing's tactics in this narrative war are incremental but steady, with journalists in each country believing their media systems strong enough to withstand developments," University of Melbourne researchers Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin and Monash University researcher Johan Lidberg wrote.

"Yet ... the narrative landscape is being redrawn globally, story by story," they said.

IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger called on media workers to resist such pressures.

"Journalists' unions must be vigilant to protect independent journalism from imposed state narratives and influences," Bellanger said.

In June 2020, Twitter removed 23,750 Chinese accounts linked to the CCP, which in turn fed into another 150,000 accounts that amplified China's preferred narrative.

The tweets were predominantly in Chinese languages and spread geopolitical narratives favorable to the CCP, while spreading disinformation about Hong Kong, the IFJ said. In August 2020, Google removed 2,500 fake YouTube accounts linked to China, with Facebook following suit in September 2020, taking down around 180 similar accounts, it said.

Twitter accounts support CCP

The report came a day after the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) published a report on Twitter accounts that supported the CCP line, although it was unable to prove any financial ties to the CCP.

Many of the accounts support the work of public figures engaged in pushing the CCP's new brand of "wolf warrior" diplomacy on Twitter.

China's ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, had nearly 27,000 fake accounts following his account on Twitter, which had retweeted Liu's tweets nearly 200,000 times before being deleted by the platform, the OII reported.

More recently, a batch of fake accounts pretending to be British citizens appeared on Twitter and started to promote CCP-friendly content, generating more than 16,000 retweets before being deleted by Twitter at the end of April 2021.

The report found that a total of 270 Chinese diplomats in 126 countries are active on Twitter and Facebook. Together with Chinese state media, they control a total of 449 accounts on the two platforms.

As of February 2021, they had made 950,000 posts that were liked more than 350 million times, and reposted or retweeted more than 27 million times, the OII report said.

Such operations spread CCP propaganda to a far wider audience, and give the impression that there is more international support for Beijing than there actually is, it said.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by saying it didn't use social media operations or disseminate disinformation and propaganda, nor did it have an overseas, online operation targeting global public opinion.

Since August 2019, the non-profit newsroom ProPublica said it has tracked more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government.

Some accounts were once genuine, and had been hacked, it said.

"They included a professor in North Carolina; a graphic artist and a mother in Massachusetts; a web designer in the U.K.; and a business analyst in Australia," ProPublica said in a 2020 article on the findings. ]

It said suspected Chinese operatives were seen in leaked private messages offering influential Chinese-speaking Twitter users cash for favorable posts.

"Most of the posts we found are in Chinese and appear aimed at influencing the millions of ethnic Chinese who live outside of China's borders," the ProPublica report said.

Reported by Cai Ling for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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