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US: China is using Russian-style disinformation tactics on COVID-19

By Pearl Matibe

The “general populations may just not realize” that Chinese inauthentic bot accounts on Twitter are rapidly amplifying People’s Republic of China (PRC) messages through Chinese embassies, diplomatic, and foreign ministry accounts the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) said early on Friday morning 8 May 2020 in Washington, D.C.

The GEC was sharing unclassified intelligence underlying their principal concern about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and said, “the single most important element here is identifying what’s actually happening in the information space and how the inauthentic activity is being used to change the shape of the discourse that’s happening in open and free societies.”

U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the GEC, Lea Gabrielle—who is a CIA-trained human intelligence operations officer, F/A-18C fighter pilot, and previously worked in the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency—provided details of recent findings on PRC efforts to push disinformation and propaganda related to COVID-19. She revealed, “the convergence of Russia and Chinese disinformation narratives…echo each other. By way of example, she shared that, “Most recently we saw CCP and Russian proxies recirculate false narratives about U.S. Biolabs in the former Soviet Union.”

All that said, Gabrielle did say the U.S. is only sharing unclassified, open source information.

The U.S. Argument

The principal point the U.S. hoped to convey is that China is using bot networks and cutting off its own people’s conversation from the world outside of China, that these activities are happening on Twitter worldwide, and that the EUR [European] region appears to be experiencing the heaviest activity with as many as 12,688 accounts. Further, that this muddies things up for democratic societies and the Chinese population does not receive other messaging.

In support of this argument, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortegus also said on Friday, “The Secretary [Mike Pompeo] has said repeatedly that transparency, accountability, and information-sharing are the best tools for stemming the tide of COVID-19’s global impact.”

Caption: Chinese police wearing face masks to avoid the spreading the coronavirus.

What Have They Found Out?

Firstly, the State Department team of analysts assessed the uncovered a new network of inauthentic accounts—the most recent followers for 36 Twitter accounts of either Chinese foreign ministry officials or the official accounts for Chinese embassies. Many Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts experienced a major surge in the number of new followers since March. Gabrielle said, “that matches the timeframe in which Beijing’s overseas messaging effort kicked into high gear around COVID.”

According to Gabrielle, beginning in March this year, the number of recently created new followers per day for these accounts increased from a historical average of approximately 30 per day to over 720 per day—a 22-fold increase, and many of these new followers were newly created accounts. It is this sudden increase of followers, combined with the U.S. discovery that many of them were recently created accounts, that made U.S. intelligence analysts point to an artificial network that has been set up for the purpose of following and amplifying narratives from Chinese diplomats and foreign ministry officials, more so at a time when the U.S. State Department claims China is adopting, “Russian-style disinformation techniques to sow confusion and to try to convince people that COVID didn’t originate in China. And this trend escalated from March into May.”

Secondly, the U.S. has assessed that almost each diplomatic account shares at least one follower with every other account and in other cases of diplomatic accounts sharing more than a thousand followers.

Example One—two accounts that are linked to the Chinese foreign ministry—@zlj517—which is MFA deputy director [Lijian] Zhao’s account, and @spokespersonchn—which is the MFA spokesperson account—these two share 3,423 of their most recent 10,000 followers, and nearly 40% of the most recent followers were created in just a 6-week period between the 1st of March and the 15th of April, 2020. The U.S. concluded that this network could be deployed to allow the CCP to rapidly amplify and spread messages around the world, skewing the conversation to its benefit and threatening to overshadow organic conversations on Twitter.

Gabrielle, summarized it this way: “From promoting conspiracy websites to the use of trolls and bot networks to pushing false narratives coached in science on Chinese state media, Beijing has engaged in an aggressive information campaign to try and reshape the global narrative around COVID. It’s doing this in attempt to make the world see China as the global leader in the response rather than the source of the pandemic.”

Using “unclassified data sets and working with partners worldwide,” Gabrielle said the U.S. has been assessing, “what’s the level of control from the PRC…Much like we assess that something is Russia-backed, we look at what the narratives are promoting, who they’re networking with, how coordinated the activity is, if it’s being manipulated in strategic times—like it’s happening here during COVID-19 . We look at if bots are involved. We look at if these accounts are being created during and doing most of their activity during Beijing business hours. And these accounts that I just talked about today, most of them were created during those hours.” She did not, however, wish to go into more details about potential People’s Liberation Army (PLA) linkages.

Russia-China Disinformation Before COVID-19

Gabrielle said, “even before the COVID-19 crisis, we assessed a certain level of coordination between Russia and the PRC in the realm of propaganda, but with this pandemic the cooperation has accelerated rapidly. We see this convergence as a result of what we consider to be pragmatism between the two actors who want to shape public understanding of the COVID pandemic for their own purposes.”

On Beijing’s use of bot networks on Twitter in tactics employed by Moscow, Gabrielle shared an example. She said the German Marshall Fund, found that “Twitter accounts linked to the Chinese embassies, consulates, and ambassadors have increased by more than 250% since the start of the Hong Kong anti-government protests in March of 2019.” Just in the period between September to December 2019, China’s diplomatic corps created more than 40 new accounts. Those 40 were the sum of what it had for April of 2019.

Is Twitter Aware?

In 2017, the acting general counsel for Twitter, Sean Edgett, said that to the extent Twitter is able to identify any foreign links associated with an account and determine that it’s functioning as state-sponsored propaganda, Twitter reserves the right to take action on the account. When asked if the Trump administration has approached Twitter on this, and if so why Twitter has not shut down official state-sponsored propaganda accounts, Gabrielle confirmed that they have shared their findings with Twitter.

How Do the Bots Work on Twitter?

About the technical workings of the bots on social media, she explained, “we’re seeing a lot of retweet activity from these. They appear as though they are intended to amplify accounts…what I’ll tell you is that the shape of the follower network reveals what we assess to be a mechanism for rapidly amplifying pro-PRC messages.”

She said they have seen, “amplification mechanisms in place for the regional diplomatic accounts…located in EUR [these countries] did have the most shared followers; 12,688 shared accounts is what I just saw.” She explained that almost every diplomatic account shares at least one follower with every other diplomatic account. As an example, a follower account follows the PRC embassy in Manila and the one in Ottawa, or the PRC embassy in Sri Lanka and the PRC embassy in Samoa. Then, it is the amount of such accounts that are then following multiple geographically separated PRC embassies and the PRC foreign ministry officials that make them suspicious. Separately, there are amplifier accounts that amplify these accounts.

Bot-like Behavior Outside Twitter

The U.S. confirms they are seeing this inauthentic bot-like behavior on other social media accounts outside of Twitter since they do assess the entire disinformation ecosystem. The ecosystem ranges from state-sponsored accounts, state platforms, and proxy websites that push out conspiracy theories that are then bounced off by other accounts. And then their intelligence analysts assess specific narratives. What they’ve seen are narratives that converge again and again centred on the origins of the coronavirus—trying to push the narratives that China did not start it—and instead, trying to point the finger elsewhere.

From Russian accounts, at times, it is just trying to create confusion from the State Department’s perspective.

To explain that there is a coordinated Russia-China effort she shared some examples. She suggested that looking back at, “before the COVID-19 crisis, we saw some level of coordination between the PRC and Russia. For example, Russia’s state-controlled news agency Sputnik has agreements with Chinese media outlets where they exchange content, they exchange personnel, and it’s hard to measure how much is actually substantive, but it’s noteworthy that they have taken those steps.” Russia and China are said to have held annual media exchange forums in the last five years attended by leading media agencies and government officials from each country, and in those media exchange forums they’ve called for bolstered cooperation on both traditional and new media.

Additionally, on the narratives and on how the U.S. is seeing Russia amplify others, she supplied examples that were more specific. She said they’ve discovered that in Italy, “Russian-linked social media accounts were amplifying content that was promoting pro-Chinese narratives. So, tweets, for example, from China’s MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and the Global Times to Italian audiences. So, we saw a pro-China narrative that was related to China’s aid to Italy, and the GEC in that case analyzed tweets that were coming from 18 Russian-linked Twitter accounts within Italy’s Twitter conversations in the month of March. And the total volume of posts from those accounts was 65,600 with about 25 percent related to COVID-19 .”

One tweet was amplified by China’s MFA spokesperson who shared a video that claimed that the Chinese national anthem was played in the streets as China’s doctors arrived in Italy, and that was later debunked by a fact-checking organization, and in fact, an Italian fact-checking organization as fake. So that video appeared to show Italians saying, ‘Thank you, China,’ when actually these Italians citizens were thanking their own health care workers, not the Chinese doctors. But PRC diplomats and party state media changed the context of the video in Beijing’s favor and then shared it widely. So that is an example of where we [the U.S.] saw Russian-linked accounts amplifying Chinese narratives, and that’s a more specific example for you.”

In a Nutshell

Several times, Gabrielle re-stated the U.S. Department of State’s sentiments that—in their view—they see “CCP narratives from CCP officials on these open social media platforms, it is a one-way megaphone while they’re locking their own general populations off from being able to see what free societies have to say. And that is the real concern here, is that ability to use that platform to transmit into open, free societies’ social media environment with no return.”

What is certain is that the U.S. is standing by their concern about what is happening on Twitter, as Gabrielle left no doubt that, “we’re seeing the CCP adopt Russian-style tactics.”

Covert propaganda on COVID-19 conducted on Twitter is one pandemic battle tactic many people may not realize just how far it has gotten. Get all COVID-19 statistics for Zimbabwe from COVID-TRACKER

Columnist, Pearl Matibe has geographic expertise on U.S. foreign policy and global affairs. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe

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Daniel Chigundu

Daniel Chigundu is the news editor for OpenParlyZW an online platform that covers Parliament of Zimbabwe activities using social media (Twitter and Facebook). He is currently the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Journalists Forum and a board member of Digital Communication Network.

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