How China uses bots and fake Twitter accounts to shape the Olympics

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How China uses bots and fake Twitter accounts to shape the Olympics

This article is published with publicaNonprofit investigative newsroom.

BEIJING — Inside the Potemkin village of China’s propaganda, the Winter Olympics has emerged as an unrivaled success, a celebration of sport and political harmony that obscures – what critics say whitewashed – the country’s flaws and rights abuses.

In Beijing 2022, the hills are snowy, not as brown as usual at this time of year. Uighur skier is a symbol of national unity, tennis player Peng Shuai is just a curious spectator. Athletes and foreign journalists admire the humble volunteers and marvel at the high-speed trains and robots that boil dumplings and mix drinks.

While China’s control over the consumption of its domestic audiences and readers is well established, the country has spread its version of the games beyond its borders with an arsenal of digital tools that make China’s narrative more accessible than ever. Providing more precision.

With bots, fake accounts, real influencers and other tools, China has been able to selectively edit how events are displayed, promoting everything that is official, even outside the country. , good story about the Winter Olympics and not trying to upset whatever.

“For the Chinese Communist Party, the Winter Olympics are inseparable from the broader political goal of building the country’s national image,” said David Bandursky, director of the China Media Project, a watchdog organization. Referring to the country’s leader, he said: “This is what Xi Jinping called ‘telling China’s story well’.”

On Twitter, which is banned in China, Chinese state media outlets and journalists, as well as diplomats, have tried to tarnish the image of the Games, raving about the venues and cooing over the Olympic mascot.

China has also sought to influence online discussions in more covert ways. For example, the New York Times and ProPublica identified a network of more than 3,000 unprofessional-looking Twitter accounts that appeared to be coordinating promoting the Olympics by sharing state media posts with similar comments. Such accounts were created until recently with very few followers, mostly reposted tweets and nothing of their own, and only served to amplify official Chinese voices.

Some of his efforts have centered on an account called Spicy Panda, which has been posting cartoons and videos to protest calls for a boycott of the Olympics. In one cartoon, Spicy Panda accused the United States of using “its deceptive propaganda weapon to stain the Olympics”.

The tweet was reposted 281 times, all by fake-looking accounts, but received little other engagement, a strong indication that the network was mobilized to promote the message. Other than the promotion burst, Spicy Panda’s post about the Olympics went unnoticed.

An analysis of Spicy Panda’s supporters revealed 861 accounts – 90 percent of which were created after December 1. The first wave of post coordinated accounts pushed Beijing’s stance that elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council were legitimate, although critics have called the vote a sham. , Then the accounts turned their attention to the Olympics. (As of Thursday, all but one of the accounts had been suspended, shortly after the Times and ProPublica asked Twitter about them.)

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Spicy Panda appears to have links with iChongqing, a state media-affiliated multimedia platform based in the city of Chongqing in central China. Accounts that shared Spicy Panda’s posts often did the same with tweets from Aichongqing’s account. IChongqing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other botlike accounts promoted the hashtag, intended to quell criticism of China, a hallmark of previous campaigns.

They promoted content under hashtags such as #Beijing2022 and #TogetherForASharedFuture, this year’s official Olympic motto. Some accounts posted repeated tweets with similar words, such as: “China’s hosting of #Beijing2022 has boosted the world’s confidence in defeating the pandemic.”

Twitter said in an emailed statement that it had suspended hundreds of accounts identified by The Times and ProPublica for violating its platform manipulation and spam policies. It said it was continuing to investigate the links of the accounts to state-backed information operations.

According to Albert Zhang, a researcher at the International Cyber ​​Policy Center at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, even the Games’ official mascot, Bing Dwayne Dwayne, a mad panda in a suit of snow, has been the subject of an organized campaign on Twitter. Is.

Thousands of new or previously dormant accounts have helped the mascot go viral, he said – which China’s state media presented as evidence of the mascot’s popularity and, by extension, the games.

“If you want to push a lot of material on something like the Beijing Olympics, this is an easy way to do it,” Mr. Zhang said. He said the campaign now underway was, like others, sponsored by the Chinese state, to advance Beijing’s narrative on topics such as COVID-19 and the crackdown on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The information space inside China is not unlike elaborate measures that have created a “closed loop” that strictly separates athletes, journalists and other participants from the general public.

Inside the “closed loop” of official propaganda, the state carefully reads almost anything ordinary Chinese people see or read. Impact has been an Olympics that is free from scandal or criticism or bad news.

When the United States men’s hockey team played an unmatched Chinese team, the game was not shown on the main state television sports channel, CCTV 5, and the 8–0 defeat was mentioned only in news reports. A state media slideshow dedicated to the men’s figure skating competition clearly left out United States gold medalist, Nathan Chen.

In Chinese footage of the Games, the mountains on which many of the competitions are being held are cleverly designed to lay out the dry, brown slopes in the background, until 8 days of snow storms painted them white. covered in frost.

One of the sport’s biggest political stories has also surfaced outside China’s Internet firewall: the appearance of professional tennis player and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai caused an uproar when he sexually assaulted a senior Communist Party leader. accused of harassment.

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The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, met him for dinner as he had promised when global outrage over his fate threatened to oversee the Games. Ms. Peng has also appeared in curling and figure skating, among other events. None of this was shown inside China, where all references to his allegations have been erased, with subsequent statements attributed to him saying he was misunderstood.

Mr. Bandursky of the China Media Project said of the Olympics, “It is absolutely important to understand that this is not just another narrative.” “It’s a narrative that implies widespread censorship and manipulation of public opinion, which is really policy.”

Jack Stubbs, vice president of intelligence at social media monitoring company Graphica, said his firm had seen another Chinese propaganda network using foreign social media platforms.

The network has spread videos emphasizing about the Olympics being eco-friendly and strengthening Sino-Russian ties, which President Vladimir V. Putin’s presence.

China has defended its use of Twitter and Facebook, the platforms it bans at home. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last year that such sites were an “extra channel” to combat negative portrayals in the West.

Wippy Media, a US company based in New Jersey, signed a $300,000 contract with the Consulate General of China in New York to help promote the Games, according to the company’s filings with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. signed.

The company’s founder Vipinder Jaswal said in a telephone interview that under the contract, first reported by research group Open Secrets, the company is promoting the games by recruiting “social media stars” to post on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. giving.

“They were very clear and I was very clear that this is only about the Olympics and the Olympics, nothing to do with politics,” he said.

Once the games started, the drama of the games themselves took over the attention. As some activists expected, the protests have not been over China’s human rights record. On the contrary, it has been praised by many athletes.

“When you actually meet and talk to the people here,” Janice Spiteri, the American snowboarder competing for Malta, said in a state media interview, “everybody has a great heart.”

Spicy Panda tweeted a state media report about another American competitor, freestyle skier Aaron Blunk. In remarks posted by the official China Daily newspaper, Mr Blunk praised China’s COVID protocol.

“#AaronBlunk reveals the real China which is completely different from what some US media have said!” Read Spicy Panda’s post.

Steven Lee Myers reported from Beijing, Paul Mozur from Seoul and Jeff Kao from New York. Claire Fu And john liu Contributed to research.

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