Twitter has shut down thousands of state-linked accounts in China that seek to counter evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, as part of what experts called an “embarrassingly” produced propaganda operation.
The operations used photos and images, shell and potentially automated accounts, and fake Uyghur profiles, to disseminate state propaganda and fake testimonials about their happy lives in the region, seeking to dispel evidence of a years-long campaign of oppression, with mass internments, re-education programs, and allegations of forced labour and sterilisation.
The networks were found to share themes and content, but often used repurposed accounts dedicated to pornography or Korean soap operas with little engagement except when they were amplified by Chinese diplomats and officials. Twitter is banned inside China but officials frequently operate accounts overseas.
According to analysts at thinktank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the content from the 2,160 accounts that Twitter closed down was often “embarrassingly” produced but provided a level of “implausible deniability” which muddied the waters around the issue.
The accounts linked to Chinese operations were in two sets, the largest being a network of 2,048 accounts amplifying the Chinese Communist party’s narratives related to Xinjiang, and the second set of 112 accounts connected to “Changyu Culture,” a private company that ASPI said appeared to be contracted by the Xinjiang regional authority to create videos of Uyghurs supporting the government.
More than 30,000 tweets from each network were identified, frequently responding to other tweets labelling evidence of abuses as “lies” under the hashtag #StopXinjiangRumours or sharing videos they claimed were “the truth” of Xinjiang, or targeting foreign politicians while claiming to be a Uyghur person.
When the data were analysed by ASPI, it found much of it linked to pornography, Korean soap opera fans, and spam accounts and content. “That’s most likely because they’ve taken over these existing accounts and repurposed them,” said ASPI senior analyst Fergus Ryan.
“They take them over and pump out this content that’s generally quite reactive … It’s so ham-handed, and really not done very well. One of the really weird things about one data set was that for some unknown reason they include hundreds of tweets with this handle for an account @fuck_next.”
The tweets also repeatedly mis-tagged the account of former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and many videos linked to the now-suspended Changyu Culture YouTube channel, which is known to be a marketing outfit backed by the Xinjiang provincial authorities.
The result was a torrent of highly implausible propaganda, obvious to most eyes but still a cause for concern, said ASPI.
ASPI found 97% of the identified accounts had fewer than five followers, and 73% of accounts had zero. While 98% of tweets had no likes or retweets, the remainder were often boosted by Chinese diplomats and officials, spreading the content and giving it legitimacy.
“The target is not actually people who are sceptical of the Chinese government, but is giving content to people who trust Chinese state media and are sceptical of western mainstream media,” said ASPI researcher Albert Zhang. “It’s propaganda appealing to the base.”
ASPI’s report said the propaganda campaign reflected the likely direction of future information operations by the Chinese Communist party (CCP). However, Zhang and Ryan also said it also showed there might be a lack of understanding by Chinese propaganda and media purveyors about what is believable or legitimate – as was showcased last month with attempts to rebut concerns about tennis star Peng Shuai.
Ryan said a portmanteau term originally ascribed to China’s surveillance system – “Chabudwellian” – also applied here, combining “Orwellian” with the Chinese term “cha bu duo”, which means “almost” but is often used to describe something done with poor or minimal effort.
“Outside of China, foreigners think their surveillance system is highly sophisticated … but in reality a lot of the time this infrastructure is gerry-rigged and not super effective,” said Ryan. “That can apply to the information campaigns as well.”