China is using a coordinated network of inauthentic social media accounts to shape public opinion surrounding the Beijing Winter Olympics, according to an investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica.
The country deployed over 3,000 fake Twitter accounts to spread messages aimed to engender positive opinion of the Winter Olympics, including sharing Chinese state media posts that paint an idyllic picture of the events, according to the investigation. The accounts were reportedly created very recently and typically have few followers.
“For the Chinese Communist Party, the Winter Olympics are inseparable from the broader political goal of building up the country’s national image,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, told The New York Times. “This is what Xi Jinping has called ‘telling China’s story well.’”
One account, called “Spicy Panda,” frequently posts anti-U.S. messages along with cartoons and videos, the NYT reported. Over 800 of Spicy Panda’s followers that reportedly engaged with the account’s posts frequently coordinated to push pro-Beijing messaging regarding Hong Kong’s council elections.
The influence campaign has also attempted to amplify the Winter Olympics’ mascot, a panda named Bing Dwen Dwen, according to the investigation, by boosting images of the mascot in an attempt to make it go viral.
“If you want to push out a lot of content on something like the Beijing Olympics, this is an easy way to do it,” Albert Zhang, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center, told the NYT.
China has also attempted to dilute criticism of its human rights record, specifically its ongoing genocide of the Uyghur Muslim minority group, by using fake accounts to flood social media hashtags, according to recent reports.
“The Chinese propaganda apparatus has been very focused on defending their image regarding the treatment of the Uyghur, while also promoting the Olympics. This hashtag is at the nexus of those two things,” Clemson University researcher Darren Linvill told The Wall Street Journal.
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