Social media giants delete thousands of accounts pushing Chinese propaganda

Twitter deletes defenses of the CCP's rights record, while Meta removes a large 'disinformation network.'
By Hwang Chun-mei
2021.12.03
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Social media giants delete thousands of accounts pushing Chinese propaganda
AFP

Twitter said on Friday it had deleted thousands of accounts used to amplify Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda regarding its human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The announcement on the Twitter blog came after Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it had identified a disinformation network based in southwest China built from hundreds of fake social media accounts, one of which belonged to a fictitious Swiss biologist.

"We removed a network of accounts that amplified Chinese Communist Party narratives related to the treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang," Twitter said. "Today, we’re releasing a representative sample of 2,048 accounts."

"We also removed a network of 112 accounts connected to Changyu Culture, a private company backed by the Xinjiang regional government," it said.

Meta said on Dec. 1 that the disinformation network it found included an account purporting to belong to a Swiss biologist by the name of Wilson Edwards who later turned out not to exist, and was used to spread "anti-U.S. disinformation" about the origins of the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first account in "Edwards'" name was opened on Facebook in July, and claimed without citing evidence that scientists were under "enormous pressure and even intimidation" from U.S. officials to support their calls for further investigations into the origins of the virus.

The post was liked, linked to or reposted by hundreds of other accounts, many of which were created on the same day, and were traced to a tech firm based in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan. It was picked up and reported on as factual by major news organizations in China, which are tightly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The hoax was revealed when Swiss authorities said they had no record of any biologists of that name.

"If you exist, we would like to meet you!" the Swiss embassy in Beijing tweeted in August 2021.

Chinese state media outlets later removed articles citing "Edwards" and claiming that the U.S. was fighting back to regain political influence at the World Health Organization (WHO), and using unproven claims that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, possibly a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to achieve this aim.

The piece had been picked up my many other outlets and social media accounts across China before the Swiss Embassy called for its removal, outing it as fake news.

A July 24 Facebook post to an account named as "Wilson Edwards" also claimed to have inside information from the WHO showing that the agency's plans to investigate the "lab leak" theory of the coronavirus' origins were "largely politically motivated."

Meta said it had deleted around 600 accounts in the network from Facebook and Instagram, according to its head of investigations Ben Nimmo.

He said the network had used clumsy tactics, including sending identical posts from several accounts at the same time and even posting instructions for reposting the claim.

'Just too much to delete'

Du Sheng-tsung, who heads the department of radio and television at Taiwan's Mingchuan University, said deleting the accounts wouldn't solve the issue of CCP disinformation.

"There's just too much to delete," Du told RFA. "They can deleting it now, but then the zombie accounts will just be better optimized next time."

"This is mostly about domestic propaganda."

He said operations like those carried out by Meta are costly in terms of human resources.

Yang Sen-hong, president of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, said the disinformation campaigns wouldn't ultimately work, as CCP leader Xi Jinping bears the responsibility for failing to contain the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

"This is Xi's scarlet letter that he can't wash off; the words 'I am the culprit for spreading COVID-19' should be engraved on Winnie-the-Pooh's body," Yang said, in a satirical reference to Xi. "The more he tries to wash them off, the clearer they become."

He said the CCP's attempts at disinformation were fairly transparent to social media users outside China.

"That's because we have the freedom to search and find stuff out, so we can easily discover such fakes," Yang said.

A World Health Organization (WHO) team sent to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in February 2021 sent out mixed signals regarding the transparency of the probe. Investigators said China refused to hand over raw data on early COVID-19 cases, making it harder to figure out how the outbreak began.

White House officials said at the time that they had “deep concerns" about the investigation. WHO experts agreed that the virus likely jumped from bats to an unknown animal species, before being transmitted to humans, but added that it was "extremely unlikely" that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been at the center of international speculation around the origins of the pandemic.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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