Twitter Becomes Key Battleground for China’s Soft Power War
Remember when Russian bots were all the rage on Twitter and Facebook? Well, China remembers. And they’ve started launching bots of their own.
A horde of Chinese bots has descended onto Twitter to promote messaging favorable to the Chinese Communist Party. According to an Associated Press report, the mob of fake Twitter accounts has been used to elevate the voices of CCP officials like Liu Xiaoming, China’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Liu is one of the most prominent voices promoting Chinese propaganda online. His tweets routinely received thousands of retweets — more than half of which were retweets from fake accounts according to the report.
Despite the accounts being fake, the attention Liu received from American users was real. His boosted tweets were viewed by hundreds of millions, allowing for Chinese propaganda to reach a massive audience in the United States. Chinese citizens, meanwhile, are not allowed on Twitter or Facebook and their internet is censored by the CCP.
Creating fake accounts to manipulate Twitter’s algorithm violates the platform’s terms of service. Many of the Chinese bot accounts have been removed from Twitter. But as new accounts continue to appear, it has turned into an online game of whack-a-bot for Twitter’s developers.
The Associated Press, along with researchers from Oxford University, spotted at least 26,879 bot accounts, all of which had retweeted Chinese officials a total of more than 200,000 times. The phony retweets allowed for Chinese officials to appear as though they had broad support in the U.S., the U.K., and other Western countries while they promoted the ideas of the Chinese Communist Party. While the Associated Press cautioned that it was “not possible to determine whether the accounts were sponsored by the Chinese government,” no other entity would have the resources or desire to conduct such a campaign.
Foreign policy experts have lamented the fact that Chinese diplomats are able to have unfettered access to American audiences via Twitter while the U.S. and its allies have no way of speaking to the Chinese people.
“It’s creating a significant challenge for Western democracies. We don’t have the same capacity to influence international audiences given that China has walled off its internet,” Jacob Wallis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre told the Associated Press. “That creates a significant asymmetric advantage.”
Both Facebook and Twitter have taken some steps to mitigate China’s influence in America. Facebook has labeled 66 percent of Chinese diplomatic accounts with a “China state-affiliated media” logo while Twitter has flagged just 14 percent of the accounts.
Twitter appears to be far more hesitant when it comes to censoring Chinese Communist Party officials than they are when it comes to censoring American citizens, including sitting presidents and other conservative political figures.