Blocked Chinese accounts conducted ‘blunt-force’ campaigns for years: researchers

Fake Facebook (left) and Twitter (right) posts likening protesters to terrorists and claiming foreign influence in Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy movement. Both were flagged as part of a China-backed disinformation campaign. Photos via Facebook/Twitter.
Fake Facebook (left) and Twitter (right) posts likening protesters to terrorists and claiming foreign influence in Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy movement. Both were flagged as part of a China-backed disinformation campaign. Photos via Facebook/Twitter.

Hundreds of Chinese accounts suspended by Twitter were part of a disinformation operation for years targeting critics of China’s ruling Communist Party, Australian researchers have found.

After combing through 3.6 million tweets from 940 suspended Twitter accounts, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the accounts had conducted “blunt-force influence” campaigns for “at least two years.”

Twitter and Facebook last month banned 200,000 accounts for “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” as part of a “state-backed” effort to discredit pro-democracy campaigners.

Studying a sliver of these accounts, the Australian think tank found that they had previously targeted prominent Chinese Communist Party critics.

The most intense information operation targeted Chinese billionaire businessman Guo Wengui, who fled into exile after being accused of corruption, according to the study published Tuesday.

The campaign against Guo began just days after an Interpol red notice was issued against him at Beijing’s request in 2017.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute found 38,732 tweets from 618 accounts that directly targeted the businessman and noticed spikes in activity around significant developments in “Guo’s falling out with the Chinese government.”

“This was a blunt-force influence operation, using spam accounts to disseminate messaging, leveraging an influence-for-hire network,” the study said.

A 2017 Harvard study found Beijing pays for up to 448 million fake posts and comments on Chinese social media per year.

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