Twitter announced Thursday that it had shut down more than 170,000 accounts linked to a Beijing-backed campaign to spread propaganda about the Chinese government, particularly regarding its response to the coronavirus pandemic and pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong.
In total, it removed 23,750 accounts that were part of a “highly engaged core network,” as well as 150,000 “amplifier” accounts tasked with getting that content in front of more eyes, the company said in a blog post. However, even with a bot army that large, the operation was ultimately a bust, Twitter said, and researchers who analysed the accounts surmised that the network only succeeded at being its own echo chamber.
“In general, this entire network was involved in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities,” Twitter wrote. “They were Tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favourable to the Communist Party of China (CCP), while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.”
While this latest propaganda campaign focused primarily on sowing political discord among Hong Kong protesters, activity among the fake accounts spiked in late January, when the coronavirus outbreak began to spread beyond China’s borders, to heap praise on the government’s emergency response to the pandemic and, later, to throw shade at America’s efforts.
Twitter also found evidence that this operation had ties to one identified and removed across multiple social media platforms last August that was similarly aimed at Hong Kong. Twitter is one of many social media platforms blocked in China under the country’s strict censorship regime.
On Thursday, Twitter also announced it had deleted state-backed campaigns originating from Russia and Turkey that were on a much smaller scale and focused on domestic audiences. It removed more than 1,000 accounts that promoted the United Russia party as well as 7,340 accounts used to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative political party.