Twitter removes 170,000 accounts linked to China propaganda campaign
Twitter has deleted over 170,000 accounts it says are linked to Chinese influence campaigns on Hong Kong protests, Covid-19 and US protests over the killing of George Floyd, among others. It comes as Zoom, another online communications platform, bowed to pressure from Beijing to censor government critics.
On 3 June, Twitter shared the tweets produced by the allegedly state-sponsored accounts with the Cyber Policy Center of the Stanford Internet Observatory, which analysed the messages.
According to Stanford’s findings, 23,750 accounts thought to be linked to the Chinese government tweeted 348,608 times. They were linked to the source responsible for a tweet critical of Hong Kong’s protest movement in 2019. Those accounts, along with 150,000 “amplifier” accounts to boost content, were removed from the platform.
In August last year, such activity had already led to the closure of some 200,000 mainland accounts.
“Collaborative research provides us with a way to learn from past operations and mitigate future malign efforts.”— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) June 11, 2020
View more in a new, independent report from @stanfordio 👇https://t.co/NECYkZ6a39
Stanford says the messages were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground”.
Russia, Turkey also targeted
Meanwhile, in Russia, a series of social media accounts identified by Stanford as the “Current Policy” group, a pro-Kremin, anti-opposition, and anti-Western entity, created 1,152 Twitter accounts that tweeted 3,434,792 times.
In Turkey, 7,340 accounts were found to have tweeted 36,948,524 times. Twitter attributes the operation to the “youth wing of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)”. The operation, for the most part, “targeted Turkish citizens”, according to Stanford.
Stanford said that China-related tweets focused on the protests in Hong Kong, Covid-19, the controversial Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and Taiwan, where elections were held in January, resulting in a victory for the pro-independence DPP party’s candidate.
Stanford found that tweets covering Covid-19 primarily praise China’s response to the virus, and occasionally contrast China’s response with that of the US government or Taiwan.
The English-language content included pointed reiterations of the claim that China – not Taiwan – had a superior response to containing coronavirus, while in fact Taiwan’s rapidity in dealing with the crisis made it one of the countries least affected in the region.
Cheering for Putin
The Russian tweets were found to be “cheerleading for President Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia.” Several of the accounts “purported to represent official government offices, such as the Moscow Construction Bureau and the Voronezh branch of the United Russia Party,” according to the report.
In a separate report on Turkey, called “Political Retweet Rings and Compromised Accounts”, Stanford says that 7,340 accounts attributed to the youth wing of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party produced 37 million tweets promoting the ruling AKP and criticising the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party and Republican People’s Party.
While Twitter is targeting accounts thought to be controlled by authoritarian regimes, online video-conferencing company Zoom has temporarily closed down many accounts of people openly critical of China.
The California-based company was engulfed in a free speech row after prominent US and Hong Kong activists found their accounts suspended in the run-up to the anniversary events marking Beijing's crushing of the pro-democracy uprising on 4 June 1989, in Tiananmen Square.
Hong Kong activist Lee Cheuk-yan, the General Secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, said one of his Zoom accounts had been closed without notice on 22 May, half an hour before he was scheduled to host a video chat by Jimmy Sham, convener of the Hong Kong Civil Rights Front, another pro-democracy group.
The talk was streamed on YouTube and Facebook without incident, but Lee's Zoom account remains disabled.
'Acting on Beijing's orders'
Another live event aimed at commemorating the 4 June crackdown “suffered two disruptions that practically destroyed it”, one of the organisers, former Tiananmen student protest leader Wang Dan, told the Washington Post.
On Thursday Zoom said it was acting on a demand from Beijing to close the accounts.
Zoom said its response "should not have impacted users outside mainland China".
It has since reinstated the three shuttered accounts and will create tools allowing it to block or remove participants from certain countries.
"Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside mainland China," the company said.
Zoom Video Communications, Inc. was created by Eric Yuan, a Chinese-American born in China’s Shandong province who initially worked for Cisco Systems, but started his own company when Cisco failed to show interest in the concept of an online video conferencing application.
According to Business Insider, Eric Yuan made almost 4 billion dollars in three months as people worldwide were confined because of Covid-19 and became increasingly dependent on video conferencing to continue working.
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