ProPublica: How China Built a Twitter Propaganda Machine Then Let It Loose on Coronavirus
Since August 2019, ProPublica has tracked more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government. Among those are the hacked accounts of users from around the world that now post propaganda and disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, the Hong Kong protests and other topics of state interest. 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. (It is unclear whether the current fake account holders hacked the accounts themselves or purchased them from elsewhere.) Suspected Chinese operatives have stepped up their efforts in recent days, according to private messages shared with ProPublica, offering influential Chinese-speaking Twitter users cash for favorable posts.
These efforts appear to be aimed at disparate audiences outside the country. 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. Others are in English. The tweets are seen by few people living in China; the Great Firewall blocks Twitter from the Chinese internet, though tech-savvy domestic users find workarounds.
Twitter is well aware of China’s influence operations. In August and September, the platform announced that it had suspended more than 5,000 suspected Chinese state-controlled accounts and released data about them. Twitter also banned around 200,000 related accounts that had been created but were not yet very active.