As China parlays its growing economic power into political influence, the nation has sought to win the information war both at home and abroad.
Chinese Communist Party officials have marched into a new battleground in its ambitious war to shape global public opinion: Western social media.
While banned inside China, the country's so-called Wolf Warrior diplomats have taken to Twitter with gusto, touting Chinese achievements, chiding other countries, posting offensive cartoons, and delivering bombastic pro-China pronouncements.
In one highly publicised episode, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted a fake image of an Australian soldier committing war crimes – prompting an immediate demand for an apology by prime minister Scott Morrison.
Research into China's rise on Twitter
However the apparent salience of these posts is fuelled by fake accounts, and efforts by big tech to crack down on bogus Chinese 'imposter accounts' have been futile, new research shows.
A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford University's Internet Institute found China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, often providing a bulk of the amplification.
The accounts are designed to covertly amplify propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people, usually without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.
The account impersonates users from outside China, including citizens from the likes of the UK and Australia, as a way of amplifying the Chinese government's narrative and talking points on Twitter.
This fiction of popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support, the Associated Press reported.
It can also distort platform algorithms, which are designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda.
Fake accounts 'can have a massive impact'
While individual fake accounts may not seem impactful on their own, over time and at scale, such networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of China’s messaging.
“You have a seismic, slow but large continental shift in narratives,” said Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology who studies social networks.
“Steer it just a little bit over time, it can have massive impact.”
AP and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended.
They typically accounted for a significant share — sometimes more than half — of the total retweets many diplomatic accounts got on Twitter.
An earlier investigation found a pro-China network of fake and impostor accounts has found a global audience on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The accounts – dubbed “Spamouflage" – would push certain agendas such as attacking the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement or questioning the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines produced in the US.
While Twitter has closed down many of these fake Chinese accounts, more continue to sprout up in their place.
The tech giant told AP it has sanctioned many accounts for manipulation and was investigating whether accounts were part of a state-affiliated information operation.
Do you have a story tip? Email: email@example.com