In a significant development Twitter said, it had removed more than 170,000 accounts tied to a Beijing-backed influence operation that tried to deceptively spread messages favorable to the Chinese government including those related to the coronavirus.
Twitter suspended a core network of 23,750 highly active accounts along with a larger network of nearly 150,000 “amplifier” accounts which were used to boost the core accounts’ content.
In a short cryptic statement, Twitter along with researchers who analyzed these accounts said, the network was largely an echo chamber of fake accounts.
China has blocked foreign social media companies including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on its soil.
Twitter said, it had also removed two smaller state-backed operations which it attributed to Turkey and Russia, which were focused on their respective domestic audiences.
According to twitter, the Chinese network had links to an earlier state-backed operation which was dismantled by it in 2019 since it was pushing misleading narratives on political dynamics in Hong Kong.
According to Renee DiResta from the Stanford Internet Observatory, the network’s coronavirus activity spiked in late January, as the outbreak spread beyond China, and again spiked in March.
“These accounts praised China’s response to the virus, while also using the pandemic to antagonize the United States and Hong Kong activists,” said DiResta.
Researchers at Bellingcat and Graphika had earlier flagged the re-emergence of the so-called “Spamouflage Dragon” network, after it went dormant following the companies’ takedowns last summer.
In May, the U.S. State Department had said it had come across a network of inauthentic Twitter accounts which had “highly probable” linkages with China given the volume of false narratives about the coronavirus they were spewing out.
In 2019, a large number of Chinese diplomats and diplomatic missions set up Twitter or Facebook accounts, to attack those who are critical of China’s overarching global policies.