Twitter Needs to Do More about Chinese Disinformation

(Illustration: Edgar Su/Reuters)
Removing fake accounts meant to spread propaganda is fine, but the disinformation spread by verified Chinese accounts is a much bigger problem.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I t’s no secret that China attempts to influence online discussion through the use of social media. The scale of its propaganda efforts became slightly clearer last Thursday, when Twitter announced that it had removed from its website over 170,000 accounts it says were created by the Chinese government to spread disinformation, in addition to other accounts owned by Russia and Turkey. The Chinese accounts mostly boosted Chinese Communist Party narratives about the democracy movement in Hong Kong, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, China’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and, to a significantly smaller extent, Taiwan.

Removing those accounts — some 23,000 of which were “highly engaged,” while around 150,000 just retweeted and liked posts — solidified Twitter’s reputation for proactively responding to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and a China hawk rumored to have 2024 presidential ambitions, praised the move. And when contrasted with recent revelations that Zoom censored calls where topics politically sensitive to Beijing were discussed, Twitter’s decision seems like an even bigger PR coup.

That said, Twitter still has a lot of work left to do in this area. The company deserves praise for consistently acting on fake accounts that spread disinformation, but it should also reevaluate its approach to the presence of authoritarian governments on its platform more broadly.

The accounts that Twitter removed last week, according to analysis of the data by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, were unsophisticated, most lacking credible personal information and linguistic facility. They would have come across as obviously fake and were thus significantly unlikely to be retweeted by real users — 92 percent of them had fewer than ten followers and 78.5 percent of them had none at all. “Very few of the accounts in this network achieved any sort of significant reach or engagement,” the Stanford researchers concluded. And ASPI noted that the disinformation network disrupted by Twitter was an earlier Chinese attempt to replicate more-sophisticated Russian online-disinformation operations.

But even though these fake accounts failed to effectively promote Chinese narratives on the Twitter, they do reflect a change in China’s strategy, according to the ASPI team: They show Beijing’s increasing awareness that issues it once saw as “internal” are significantly influenced by global events, and that it must thus “successfully shape, manage and control narratives outside the PRC as well as inside.”

This can be seen not just in China’s illicit online-influence operations but also in its public-facing communications: Chinese diplomats and CCP-owned media outlets have already made a splash on social media. In the past two or so years, a class of Chinese “Wolf Warrior” diplomats with social-media savvy has emerged. These officials regularly chime in online to share CCP talking points about the coronavirus and U.S.–China relations, often spreading disinformation. The most infamous example of this came when Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, tweeted that the U.S. Army had brought the coronavirus to China.

Zhao and the other “Wolf Warriors” are a malignant presence on social media. The CCP narratives they spread have in some cases become indistinguishable from more innocuous online content — in late April, the Chinese embassy in Paris and a state-owned Chinese outlet shared an impressively produced propaganda video about the coronavirus featuring LEGO figures, which went viral.

Twitter may be vigilant about fake accounts that spread state-sponsored propaganda, but its response to such above-board propagandizing has been lackluster. Not only has it allowed accounts like Zhao’s to operate largely unimpeded, it also verifies Chinese officials and even trains them to use the platform.

As tensions between Washington and Beijing mounted in March, Representative Mike Gallagher and Senator Ben Sasse wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, urging that the accounts of Chinese officials be shut down. So far, Twitter has mostly ignored calls to apply more stringent measures to disinformation spread by official, verified Chinese accounts. It fact-checked Zhao’s coronavirus-origin conspiracy theory, but other tweets, such as his whitewashing of the widespread detention of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, remain untouched.

Shutting down official CCP accounts is not a perfect solution, of course — some experts warn that doing so could lead to further Balkanization of the Internet and increase calls for the application of more stringent standards to American politicians. But shouldn’t a different standard apply to China and other authoritarian countries where ordinary people are banned from accessing Twitter? After all, the CCP already plays by a different set of rules. As political-risk analyst Anders Corr tells National Review, banning Chinese officials and their counterparts in other authoritarian regimes from Twitter would fall “under the principle of not letting dictators use our liberties against us.”

Beijing’s use of fake accounts to diffuse its narratives remains a work in progress and, as of now, a red herring in the broader fight against Chinese disinformation. The bigger problem is the CCP disinformation that comes from real accounts, and Twitter and other social-media companies shouldn’t be afraid to take stronger action against it.

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