Hundreds of now-banned Twitter accounts linked to a “state-backed” effort to malign protests in Hong Kong had earlier been used to target critics of the Chinese government, according to a study of the accounts.
In a report released on Sept 3, the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the accounts were part of a coordinated information campaign operating for more than two years to target figures like fugitive billionaire Guo Wengui and jailed publisher Gui Minhai.
“Those early efforts are an attempt to shape sentiment and the international narrative around these prominent critics of the Chinese government and to shape them in such a way as to influence the Chinese diaspora’s perception of these individuals,” said Jake Wallis, senior analyst with the centre and one of the report’s principal authors.
Twitter announced last month that it had suspended 936 accounts for “attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” through banned tactics like spamming and coordinated posting, saying they were part of a “significant state-backed information operation” originating from China.
After the accounts were suspended, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was unclear on the details, but rejected claims of social media manipulation over the protests.
“As for the situation in Hong Kong, the opinion of 1.4 billion Chinese and overseas students are very clear, and they can all express their views,” Geng said.
The centre said its researchers used information supplied by Twitter to examine the nature and content of the accounts but did not investigate Twitter’s claim that the accounts were linked to the Chinese government.
The researchers found that more than 38,000 tweets from 618 of the now-suspended Twitter accounts targeted Guo, a prominent businessman and vocal critic of the Chinese government, who is wanted for corruption by the Chinese authorities.
Those tweets, posted between April 2017 and late July this year, started five days after Interpol issued a red notice for Guo’s arrest, at Beijing’s request.
“He’s been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government for some time, he’s quite a prominent figure and has spoken publicly on his position and his views and that’s why he features so prominently in the data set,” Wallis said.
About half of the accounts were established Twitter identities, some with thousands of followers and opened as early as 2007. They had mainly been used for marketing products ranging from South Korean boy bands to pornography, the report found.
They used a variety of languages and bases around the world, but in early 2017 started focusing on Chinese politics, when the campaign against Guo was launched. Wallis said this indicated that the accounts were bought or contracted at that time.
Since then, groups of these accounts have worked together to question the character or motivations of figures like human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng who was detained after his call for constitutional reform, and Gui, who published gossipy books about Chinese political leaders.
The accounts were also involved in a small-scale information campaign when 10 people were arrested in Shandong province after protests to improve army veterans’ retirement benefits turned violent. Posts on the accounts called for the protesters to be punished for “ignoring laws and regulations”.
Tweets against the Hong Kong protests began in April and spiked after the first mass protest of the now-shelved bill, legislation that would have allowed people to be extradited from Hong Kong to the mainland, according to the report.
In all, 1,600 tweets from 112 of the accounts were related to Hong Kong's anti-extradition bill protests.
“We are seeing similar approaches to the way in which China’s domestic internet is moderated through a state-mandated flooding and shaping of sentiment,” Wallis said of the Twitter account activity. “But that [approach] doesn’t work in an Internet environment that is completely unbounded. The messaging can’t get the same traction and there’s too much other noise.” – South China Morning Post