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China exploiting global social media platforms to influence foreign audience

Chinese diplomats and State-run media have exploited global audiences through popular social networking sites (Photo: IANS)

China is using social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to broadcast State propaganda to global audiences, which is further amplified by fake Twitter accounts. This was revealed by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in a seven-month-long investigation of social media accounts held by Chinese State-run media and Chinese diplomats.

A global audit by the OII and the Associated Press says that Chinese diplomats and State media outlets are highly active on Twitter and Facebook but only 14 per cent of diplomat accounts on Twitter are labelled as State-run media by the micro-blogging site.

Marcel Schliebs, doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper at the OII, University of Oxford, said: “We find that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is increasingly seeking to use its diplomats to amplify the outward-facing propaganda dissemination of state-backed media outlets. Our analysis shows PRC diplomats are represented in at least 126 countries with active Twitter or Facebook accounts.”

The Chinese government is exploiting those very social media networks to influence foreign public opinion which it has banned for its own public. The study points out that "nearly half of all PRC diplomat retweets are from the 1% of most active amplifiers."

For their study, the Oxford researchers examined every tweet and Facebook post produced by Chinese diplomats and ten of the largest state-controlled media outlets between June 2020 and February 2021.

Chinese diplomats and State-backed media accounts have been highly active on Twitter. Between June 2020 and February 2021, 189 diplomatic accounts tweeted 201,382 times and got nearly seven million likes, 1.3 million retweets and attracted a million comments. Interestingly, a large number of these retweets came from accounts that Twitter had suspended for violating its rules. 

The researchers also found that despite the Twitter and Facebook policy of labelling official accounts to enhance transparency and accountability, only one in eight (14%) of Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter were labelled clearly as government accounts.

Quoting another similar research, The Epoch Times says that two Twitter accounts—those belonging to Liu Xiaoming, the former Chinese ambassador to the UK, and the Chinese Embassy in London, were scrutinised carefully. This research found that from June 2020 to January 2021, a coordinated network of 62 accounts was dedicated to amplifying messages from the two accounts.

Of the 62 accounts, 60 were eventually suspended by Twitter, with 29 of them for the reason of platform manipulation. The remaining two were deleted by their own users. The researchers say that these 62 accounts seemed to generate little interest from genuine users, but may have contributed to the amplification of official Chinese content "by manipulating platform algorithms”, says The Epoch Times.

The research says that the Chinese government has an overwhelming presence on social media networks. The researchers found 176 Twitter and Facebook accounts representing Chinese State-controlled media outlets in English and other languages. These accounts posted over 700,000 times, with posts receiving a mammoth 355 million likes with over 27 million comments and re-shares.

However, nearly half of all Chinese official accounts are retweeted by the top 1% most active accounts. These highly active accounts engage with PRC diplomats at a very high rate, often retweeting them thousands of times within just a few months.

Talking about the significance of the research, Professor Philip N. Howard, Senior Author of the study said: “By uncovering the scale and reach of the PRC’s public diplomacy campaign, we can better understand how policy makers and social media firms should react to an increasingly assertive PRC propaganda strategy.”