OAKLAND, Calif. — China has stepped up its effort to spread misinformation on Twitter, creating tens of thousands of fake accounts that discussed protests in Hong Kong and the Communist Party’s response to the coronavirus, Twitter said on Thursday.
The company said it had discovered and removed 23,750 accounts that were “highly engaged” in a coordinated effort to spread misinformation. Twitter said it also took down about 150,000 accounts that were dedicated to boosting China’s messages by retweeting and liking the content.
Twitter’s findings were consistent with a recent New York Times analysis of roughly 4,600 accounts that engaged with Chinese leaders on Twitter. The Times found hundreds of accounts with underdeveloped personas that appeared to operate solely to cheer on and amplify China’s leading envoys and state-run news outlets.
While previous misinformation campaigns from China have focused on opposing and demeaning the Hong Kong protests, the exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, and Taiwan, Twitter said the recently discovered batch included new messages promoting the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Trump administration has sparred with Beijing over the pandemic, saying that China mishandled the outbreak, which is believed to have started in Wuhan. Chinese officials on Twitter have fought back, suggesting without evidence that the virus originated in the United States.
Until early February, for example, the Twitter accounts accused Hong Kong protesters and pro-democracy activists of overhyping the threat of the virus and using rumors as “panic bullets.”
But as the extent of the outbreak became clearer, the narrative shifted. In March, the accounts praised China as a “responsible big country” and called on the United States to “put aside political bias” so it could learn from China’s response, according to an analysis of the accounts by Stanford’s Internet Observatory.
The accounts were uncovered in recent weeks, soon after they were created, and were generally not sophisticated enough to fool a viewer into believing they were operated by real people, Twitter said.
Twitter detects coordinated campaigns in part by observing how users log in to their accounts. A user logging into many accounts from the same web address could be a sign of coordinated activity. Twitter has traced previous Chinese campaigns by observing that some of the accounts used Twitter from specific unblocked internet protocol addresses. Because Twitter is not permitted in China, an unblocked address can hint that the accounts are acting with government approval, the company said.
“Persistent, covert and deceptive influence operations like this one demonstrate the extent to which the party-state will target external threats to its political power,” said Fergus Hanson, the director of the International Cyber Policy Center, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who worked with Twitter to discover the accounts.
Although China has begun to copy the misinformation playbook laid out by Russia during the 2016 presidential election in the United States, it has yet to refine its efforts. A batch of more than 200,000 accounts that was removed from Twitter and Facebook in August 2019 revealed a similar lack of developed personas, making them easier to spot.
Few of the accounts recently removed by Twitter managed to gain more than 10 followers on the platform before they were removed. Many of them did not have biographical statements — a way that Twitter users tell other users about themselves — and some of the accounts tweeted in Russian as well as Chinese.
Despite its lack of sophistication, the campaign showed that China is persistent and becoming more aggressive in its use of social media platforms to spread propaganda, researchers said.
“China has, especially over the last year and a half in response to Taiwan’s elections and the Hong Kong protests, shown an increasing willingness to be aggressive with its online influence operations,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 5, 2020
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
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.
While China has increased its efforts, Russia and other nations have not halted their online influence operations. Twitter said it also removed smaller batches of accounts from Russia and Turkey that were engaged in misinformation campaigns.
It took down 1,152 accounts associated with the Russian media website Current Policy, which Twitter said was engaged in “state-backed political propaganda.” The accounts promoted content that praised the United Russia party and attacked political dissidents.
Twitter also removed 7,340 accounts that it traced to the youth wing of AK Parti, the conservative party in Turkey that is led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The accounts posted and amplified messages that were favorable to the party and the president, while also engaging in cryptocurrency-related spam.
Some of the accounts that Twitter removed were affiliated with groups that criticized President Erdogan and the Turkish government. Those accounts had been repeatedly hacked and compromised by state actors, Twitter said.
Davey Alba contributed reporting in New York.