Twitter overturns Beijing-backed influence operation by pushing coronavirus messages

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Twitter reported on Thursday that it has removed more than 170,000 accounts linked to a Beijing-backed influence operation that has misleading messages favorable to the Chinese government, including some about the coronavirus.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: The Twitter App loads on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Los Angeles, California, USA, on July 22, 2019. REUTERS / Mike Blake

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The company has suspended a core network of 23,750 highly active accounts, in addition to a larger network of around 150,000 "amplifier" accounts used to increase the content of the main accounts.

Twitter, along with the researchers who analyzed the accounts, said the network was basically an echo chamber of fake accounts without much effort.

Twitter is blocked in China, along with other American social media companies like Facebook and Instagram.

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The company also removed two smaller state-supported operations, attributed to Russia and Turkey, both focused on the domestic audience.

Twitter said the Chinese network had links to a previous state-backed operation dismantled last year by Google's Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which had been spreading misleading narratives about political dynamics in Hong Kong.

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The new operation also focused heavily on Hong Kong, but it also promoted messages about the coronavirus pandemic, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and Taiwan, the researchers said.

Renee DiResta, at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the network's coronavirus activity increased in late January, when the outbreak spread beyond China and peaked in March.

The accounts praised China's response to the virus, while also using the pandemic to antagonize activists in the United States and Hong Kong, she said.

Open source researchers at Graphika and Bellingcat had already signaled the resurgence of the so-called "Spamouflage Dragon" network, after it went down after companies crashed last summer.

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The US State Department said in May that it had found a network of non-authentic Twitter accounts with "highly likely" links to China, spreading false claims of coronavirus.

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Twitter rejected the claims at the time, saying the 5,000 accounts identified by the agency included non-governmental organizations and legitimate journalists.

A Twitter spokeswoman said on Thursday that the removed network was not related to what the State Department identified.

In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said there was a need for Chinese voices with objective views, as many platforms carried falsehoods about China.

"China is the biggest victim of misinformation," spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A 3D printed Twitter logo is seen in front of a cyber code shown in this illustration, taken on March 22, 2016. REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Illustration / Photo from the file

"I think that if Twitter wants to do something to its credit, then really the accounts that should be closed are precisely the ones that are organized and coordinated to attack and defame China."

Last year, diplomatic missions and Chinese diplomats, including Hua, created Twitter or Facebook accounts, often using them to attack Beijing's critics.

Last month, Twitter signaled a tweet written in March by a Chinese government spokesman who suggested that the U.S. military take the new coronavirus to China as the social media platform increases fact checking.

Reporting by Katie Paul, Pei Li and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Stephen Coates and Clarence Fernandez

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