As the Trump administration lashes out at China over a range of grievances, Beijing’s top diplomats and representatives are using the president’s favorite online megaphone — Twitter — to slap back with a pugnaciousness that is best described as Trumpian.
Behind China’s combative new messengers, a murky hallelujah chorus of sympathetic accounts has emerged to repost them and cheer them on. Many are new to the platform. Some do little else but amplify the Beijing line.
No doubt some of these accounts are run by patriotic, tech-savvy Chinese people who get around their government’s ban on Twitter and other Western platforms. But an analysis by The New York Times found that many of the accounts behaved with a single-mindedness that could suggest a coordinated campaign of the type that nation states have carried out on Twitter in the past.
Of the roughly 4,600 accounts that reposted China’s leading envoys and state-run news outlets during a recent week, many acted suspiciously, The Times found. One in six tweeted with extremely high frequency despite having few followers, as if they were being used as loudspeakers, not as sharing platforms.
Nearly one in seven tweeted almost nothing of their own, instead filling their feeds with reposts of the official Chinese accounts and others.
In all, one third of the accounts had been created in the last three months, as the war of words with the Trump administration heated up. One in seven had zero followers.
The United States and China are battling to dominate the global narrative. China was criticized for its early mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, but it has regained confidence as other countries have made their own stumbles. With the United States in turmoil, upended first by the epidemic and now by protests, Beijing sees a chance to define itself as a global leader, one unafraid to press its interests in Hong Kong and the region.
It is far from clear that the Chinese government is behind the swarms of accounts helping to spread its gospel on Twitter. Online information campaigns are becoming increasingly sophisticated as malicious actors get better at disguising their digital activity, security experts say. They now rarely make telltale mistakes such as using social media accounts that were all created on the same day, follow one another and post the same material.
Campaigns are often uncovered one small piece at a time. Twitter has declared operations to be state-backed after identifying as few as six accounts.
Much is unknown about China’s covert influence activities in particular. Twitter last year suspended more than 200,000 accounts that it called a Chinese state-backed operation aimed at discrediting Hong Kong’s protesters, though it said little about how it came to that conclusion.
Still, The Times’s findings add to other recent evidence suggesting that Twitter is being manipulated to amplify pro-Beijing messages. Next Dim, a data firm in Israel, discovered two mundane-looking tweets praising China’s coronavirus response that were liked and reposted hundreds of thousands of times in March, possibly with the help of strategically placed influencer accounts.
The U.S. State Department found inauthentic-seeming accounts that in April cited a Cambridge University study to raise doubts that the coronavirus originated in China. The most active of these accounts referred to the study in scores of tweets, even though the study’s lead author dismissed that interpretation of its findings.
Neither Next Dim’s findings nor the State Department’s have been previously reported.
“Improving the health of the public conversation is a priority for our company,” Twitter said in a statement. “Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, is a violation of the Twitter Rules.”
The State Department has denounced China’s efforts to burnish its image and drown out criticism during the pandemic, comparing them to Russia’s disinformation campaigns. Both countries are using a range of tools to “shape and tilt any given information environment in their favor,” said Lea Gabrielle, coordinator of the department’s Global Engagement Center.
“I think the Chinese Communist Party is still trying to define its relationship with Twitter,” said Kristine Lee, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “But the Covid-19 pandemic has served as an important period of experimentation.”
The U.S.-China tongue-lashing adds to the questions vexing Twitter about how it treats inflammatory or misleading remarks from world leaders. Mr. Trump has accused the company of censoring him and other Republicans while ignoring questionable posts by Democrats and the Chinese government.
Beijing’s Twitter brigade includes Hua Chunying, the head of the foreign ministry’s information department. Since joining the platform in October, Ms. Hua has attracted more than half a million followers with her feisty put-downs of the United States.
In a Communist Party journal last year, Ms. Hua wrote that China had to find a voice in international affairs that was commensurate with its economic strength. “We have walked closer to the center of the world stage than ever before, but we still do not grasp the microphone completely in our hands,” she wrote.
One reason, she wrote: a lack of “fighting spirit.”
Another foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, became notorious after tweeting that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to China. Twitter later added a fact-checking label to Mr. Zhao’s post.
The Times analyzed all of the tweets that Ms. Hua, Mr. Zhao and 12 other Twitter users linked to the Chinese government posted between May 18 and May 25.
The other users included the foreign ministry’s main account, as well as the accounts of China’s ambassadors to the United States and Britain. They also included nine accounts run by state news outlets.
That week, Beijing moved to tighten its control over Hong Kong. Mr. Trump threatened to cut off funding to the World Health Organization. American officials congratulated Taiwan’s president on the start of her second term. China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, was furious.
Ms. Hua mused about whether the coronavirus actually originated in the United States: “Scientists at the US NIH began developing a #COVID19 vaccine on January 11. There were reports of cases as early as November last year. Any explanation or investigation?” Her post, which refers to the National Institutes of Health, was liked 4,600 times.
The Times’s analysis found that hundreds of the 4,600 accounts that reposted the Chinese government mouthpieces that week behaved suspiciously. Many were incessant tweeters despite having limited followings. After excluding accounts that had zero followers and had tweeted five times or fewer, over a sixth of the accounts had posted 100 or more times for every follower.
A few accounts repeatedly retweeted at set lengths of time after the original post — 9 hours and 49 minutes after, 19 hours and 34 minutes after — suggesting that software had been used to schedule their tweets. Twitter has since suspended some of the accounts for violating its policies.
When contacted by The Times, several pro-China Twitter users denied being part of a government campaign but acknowledged that they joined the platform specifically to follow the foreign ministry representatives. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Others said they were either curious about Mr. Trump’s tweets about China or felt demonized by them.
“He has done so many shameless things for re-election,” one user, @beautifullady76, said in a Twitter message. “Countless Chinese people are angry and everyone has the right to the truth. We just want to say a fair word for China!”
Public records show that Beijing is trying to expand its influence on the Western internet. China’s internet regulator has sought out contractors to help it “make use of overseas social media platforms to develop online propaganda on major themes,” procurement documents show.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 5, 2020
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
Much of this kind of activity may not appear in official documents, however. The regulator did not respond to a request for comment.
“There’s no reason to think that the parts of the Chinese government that are formally in charge of conducting information operations are not able to conduct operations that are as sophisticated as others’,” said Camille François of the network analysis company Graphika. “They just haven’t been publicly exposed and dissected yet.”
Researchers remain on the lookout. ProPublica tracked 10,000 fishy accounts that posted about the coronavirus and the Hong Kong protests. Alkemy, an Italian digital marketing firm, found that inauthentic-looking users were behind many posts celebrating Chinese medical aid to Italy.
In March, two tweets lauding China’s handling of the outbreak were liked and reposted hundreds of thousands of times. The posts were not shocking, funny or newsworthy, and originated from users with modest followings.
That caught the attention of Next Dim, an Israeli company that uses network analytics to identify and prevent financial crime.
“While scanning Twitter, our systems automatically discovered a huge irregularity,” said Next Dim’s chief executive, Netta Marrom. Too huge, he believes, to be the result of chance.
On March 12, the first user, @manisha_kataki, posted a video showing workers disinfecting streets in China. “At this rate, China will be back in action very soon, may be much faster than the world expects,” the user wrote.
The next day, another user, @Ejiketion, retweeted the post, marveling at how China had locked down cities and built coronavirus hospitals. In the West, by contrast, “We washing our hands LOL,” @Ejiketion wrote. The account has since been deleted.
The two posts together received more than 382,000 retweets and 1.1 million likes, many of them within the first two days. That made them roughly as popular as Elon Musk’s tweet, also from March, in which the head of Tesla called the coronavirus panic “dumb.”
Next Dim identified around 20 Twitter users whose followers accounted for thousands of the retweets of @manisha_kataki’s and @Ejiketion’s posts. Some of these users had immense followings but rarely tweeted about China.
Next Dim’s analysis uncovered other signs that the two tweets’ popularity may not have been organic. Few of the first users to retweet @manisha_kataki’s post were followers of the account, which means they were unlikely to have seen the tweet in their timelines. Thousands of accounts reposted both tweets, even though @Ejiketion’s tweet was itself a repost of @manisha_kataki’s.
Neither @manisha_kataki nor @Ejiketion responded to requests for comment.
Wang Yiwei and Lin Qiqing contributed research.