China’s ruling Communist Party is trying to support its image by creating fake social media accounts that present a pro-Beijing message, especially on issues involving the Hong Kong Democracy movement and the COVID-19 outbreak. On Thursday, Twitter announced that it had discovered and removed 23,750 accounts that were “highly engaged” in a coordinated effort to spread misinformation. Twitter said it had also taken down around 150,000 accounts that were busy liking and sharing pro-Beijing propaganda.
The latest wave has focused on China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak including claims that the outbreak emerged from the US rather than China. In March, the accounts emphasized that China was a “responsible big country” and called on the US to “put aside political bias” in order to learn from China’s response.
The fake accounts were typically lacking enough information to be believable. Typically, the accounts wouldn’t draw more than ten followers before being removed. Twitter detects coordinated campaigns by observing how users login to accounts, if multiple accounts are coming from one IP address, it is often a sign of coordinated activity. Since Twitter is blocked in China, unblocked addresses from China are likely to have had government approval.
Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, criticized Twitter for removing some accounts while leaving posts claiming that China created COVID-19 as a bioweapon. “China’s efforts and achievements in fighting the coronavirus epidemic are real and obvious to all,” Ms. Hua said. “Apart from those with extreme malice who slander China, the unbiased people of the international community can all see it clearly and hold a high degree of approval.”
China is under pressure to defend its global and domestic reputation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession. The number one claim for Beijing’s legitimacy is the impressive economic growth seen in the country ever since Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. This claim to legitimacy is facing its first serious challenge since the market reforms began.