On Thursday, the microblogging platform Twitter announced that they had terminated 1.7 lakh accounts that were spreading pro-Chinese narrative. A few thousand accounts associated with Turkey and Russia also faced the heat. According to a disclosure report posted on Twitter’s blog, the company announced that it had identified and terminated accounts for misusing the services to spread state-linked information. Twitter also shared the relevant data with its two leading research partners Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) and Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
We’re disclosing new state-linked information operations to our public archive — the only one of its kind in the industry. Originating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and Turkey, all associated accounts and content have been removed. https://t.co/obRqr96iYm— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) June 11, 2020
State-linked operations supporting China
Back in August 2019, Twitter had disclosed termination of around 1000 accounts that were sowing state-backed narrative to undermine the legitimacy and political position of the then ongoing protests in Hong Kong. They identified large clusters of accounts that were posting and retweeting in a coordinated manner to push messages related to Hong Kong protests.
On 11th June 2020, Twitter further disclosed the actions they took against almost 1.7 million accounts that were spreading state-backed posts to push Covid-19 related narrative in favor of China. Their report suggests that 23,750 accounts formed the core of the operations. Another 150,000 accounts were boosting the content posted by core accounts. In feedback given by the researchers on previous disclosures, Twitter was asked to refine the disclosure process to make the investigation more effective. Thus, these 150,000 were not added to the public archive.
The core accounts had low follower count and engagement but they were extensively pushing the state-backed content. On the other hand, with minimal or no followers, 150,000 accounts were explicitly designated to artificially create inflation around the pushed content. The whole network was manipulating the algorithms to make the state-backed content more visible across the platform. They tried to form a positive narrative for the Communist Party of China while pushing a negative narrative around the ongoing Hong Kong protests.
Russian accounts closed violating policies
China-favoring accounts were not the only ones to get terminated during the process. Twitter found out that 1,152 state-backed accounts in Russia were cross-posting and boosting content reach using an unauthentic and coordinated manner. Among these accounts, one was a media website as well that was engaging in political propaganda. “A network of accounts related to this media operation was suspended for violations of our platform manipulation policy, specifically cross-posting and amplifying content in an inauthentic, coordinated manner for political ends. Activities included promoting the United Russia party and attacking political dissidents,” the statement said.
In early 2020, experts at twitter marked 7,340 accounts that were pushing state-backed content using coordinated and inauthentic methods. The main target is such activities was the domestic audience of Turkey. These accounts were posting content favoring AK Parti and showed support for President Erdogan. The experts noticed that the content was being pushed using a significant number of compromised accounts.
Key takeaways of Standford Internet Observatory (SIO)
Twitter shared the details of terminated accounts with SIO on 3rd June 2020. Here are the key takeaways mentioned in the report published Cyber Policy Center of SIO.
- The accounts that were supporting China’s narrative posted content around Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, Covid-19, and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.
- In the later January 2020, Twitter observed a spike in content related to Covid-19 and a major increase in China-favoring tweets was further visible by the end of March 2020. Most of the accounts were created in late January, while some accounts were as old as of September 2019.
- The accounts did not have any well defined personal. They had little or no followers and mostly posted content favoring Chinese narrative on Covid-19 and other issues.
- In the case of Russian accounts, most of them were posting pro-Kremlin, anti-opposition and anti-west tweets.
- The politically leaning Russian accounts majorly engaged in the cheerleading leadership of Vladimir Putin.
- Caricature accounts were taking care of the anti-opposition activity. They tried to amplify allegations that opposition cheated in last year’s Moscow Duma elections.
- Many accounts were associated with paid Twitter services like retweets and link posting. These accounts had a wide variety of content like photography, travel and more. Most of them were not typical political accounts.
- In the case of Turkey favoring accounts, most of them were posting content cheerleading AKP.
- Some accounts were critical of the current regime and were taken down as well. Tweets from many accounts were critical of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
This morning we launched a new @ASPI_ICPC report based on a Twitter takedown dataset of state-linked information operations originating from the PRC. We also discovered Facebook accounts & extra Twitter accounts we believe are likely part of this campaign https://t.co/7wo9HWZrMY— Danielle Cave (@DaniellesCave) June 12, 2020
This is not the first time Twitter has terminated or suspended accounts for violating regulations. Twitter said in the statement that they would offer more clarity in the public archive. They will continue to develop their system and algorithms to ensure diversity. In summer, Twitter will hold a conference to consult experts, industry and government to discuss possibilities of further collaborations.