How China used Bots and fake Twitter accounts to shape the Olympics

This article was published with ProPublicaNon-profit investigative newspaper.

BEIJING – Inside the propaganda Chinese village of Potemkin, the Winter Olympics turned out to be an unexpected success, a glorification of sport and political harmony that has been obscured – the leaders Critics say it has whitewashed – the country’s flaws and human rights violations.

By the time Beijing 2022, the hills were snowy, not brown as usual for this time of year. A Uyghur skier is Icon of national unity, tennis player Peng Shuai is just one curious audience. Foreign athletes and journalists praised the polite volunteers and marveled at the bullet train and robot that boiled dumplings and made drinks.

While China’s control over what domestic viewers and readers consume is well established, the country has popularized its own version of the Game beyond its borders, with an arsenal of tools Digital is giving China’s story arguably greater reach and sophistication than ever before.

With bots, fake, genuine accounts influential people and other tools, China has been able to selectively edit the way events appear, even outside the country, promoting everything that reinforces the official, feel-good story of the Winter Olympics and try to extinguish anything that doesn’t.

“For the Chinese Communist Party, the Winter Olympics cannot be separated from the broader political goal of image building,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a watchdog organization. country of the country. Referring to the country’s leader, he added: “This is what Xi Jinping calls ‘telling China’s story well.'”

On Twitter, which is banned in China, Chinese state media and journalists, as well as diplomats, have attempted to enhance the image of the Olympics, raving about the venues and whispering about the mascot of the Olympics.

China has also sought to influence online discussions in more obscure ways. The New York Times and ProPublica have identified a network of more than 3,000 seemingly unauthentic Twitter accounts that appear to be collaborating to promote the Olympics by sharing posts on state media with fellow athletes. identical comments. Such accounts tend to be created recently with very few followers, mostly retweet tweets and nothing of their own, and seem to work only to amplify China’s official voice.

Some of their efforts centered on an account called Spicy Panda, which posted cartoons and videos to counter the calls. boycott the Olympics. In one cartoon, Spicy Panda accused the United States of using “their weapons of deceitful propaganda to smear the Olympics.”

The tweet was retweeted 281 times, all by accounts that looked fake, but received little other engagement, a strong indication that the network was mobilized to promote the message. Aside from the hype, Spicy Panda’s posts about the Olympics have barely gotten any attention.

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

Spicy Panda appears to have a connection with iChongqing, a multimedia platform affiliated with state media based in Chongqing, a city in central China. Accounts that have shared Spicy Panda’s posts often do so with iChongqing accounts’ posts. IChongqing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other botlike accounts have promoted hashtags that appear to be aimed at erasing criticism of China, a hallmark of previous campaigns.

They promoted content under hashtags like #Beijing2022 and #TogetherForASharedFuture, the official motto of this year’s Olympics. Several accounts repeatedly posted tweets with identical words, such as: “China’s hosting of the scheduled #Beijing2022 ship has raised 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 their platform manipulation and spam policies. It said it was continuing to investigate the accounts’ links to state-backed disinformation practices.

Even the official game mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, a cuddly raccoon in an ice suit, has been the subject of an organized campaign on Twitter, according to Albert Zhang, a researcher based in China. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber ​​Policy Center.

Thousands of new or previously inactive accounts have helped the mascot go viralhe said – which China’s state media has taken as proof of the mascot’s popularity and, by extension, of the Olympics.

“If you want to put out a lot of content like the Beijing Olympics, this is an easy way,” said Mr. Zhang. He added that the campaign is currently underway like others sponsored by the Chinese state to advance Beijing’s narrative on topics such as Covid-19 and Persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The information space inside China is nothing more than complicated measures that have created a “closed loop” that keeps athletes, journalists and other participants strictly isolated from the public.

Inside the “closed loop” of official propaganda, the state carefully manages almost everything that ordinary Chinese people see or read. Effectively an Olympics without scandal, criticism or bad news.

When the USA men’s hockey team plays a game overtake the Chinese team, the match was not shown on the main sports channel of the state broadcaster, CCTV 5, and the 8-0 defeat was only briefly mentioned in the news reports. A state media program for the men’s figure skating competition clearly missed the gold medalist, Nathan Chen of the United States.

In China’s footage of the Olympics, the mountains where many competitions are being held were cleverly framed to exclude the dry, brown slopes in the background, until day 8 when A blizzard covered them in a white mist.

One of this Game’s biggest political stories has also been revealed outside of China’s internet firewall: the emergence of Peng Shuaiprofessional tennis player and three-time track and field athlete, who sparked outrage when she accused a senior Communist Party leader of sexually assaulting her.

The President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, met her for dinner, as he had promised to do when global outcry Her fate is threatened to overshadow the game. Ms. Peng has appeared at billiards and figure skating matches, among other events. None of that was shown inside China, where all references to her accusations were removed, including statements later attributed to her, stating that she was misunderstood.

“It is extremely important to understand that this is not just another story,” said Mr. Bandurski of the China Media Project. “It’s an implied story of widespread censorship and manipulation of public opinion, which is essentially policy.”

Jack Stubbs, vice president of intelligence at Graphika, a social media monitoring company, said his company has observed another Chinese propaganda network using foreign social media platforms. outside.

The network has spread videos highlighting the Olympics as eco-friendly and winding about strengthening China-Russia ties, highlighted by President Vladimir V. Putin’s attendance at the opening ceremony. desert.

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

An American company, Vippi Media, based in New Jersey, has signed a $300,000 contract with the Chinese consulate general in New York to help promote the Olympics, according to the company. submit with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

According to the Contract, first report by research group Open Secrets, the company promoted the Olympics by recruiting “social media stars” to post on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, the company’s founder, Vipinder Jaswal, said in a statement. phone interview.

“They were very clear and I was very clear that it was just about the Olympics and the Olympics, not politics,” he said.

After the Olympics began, it was the drama of the sports that dominated the attention. Protests over China’s human rights record have not materialized, as some activists had hoped. In contrast, many athletes were full of praise.

“When you actually meet the people here and talk to them,” Jenise Spiteri, American skier competing for Maltasay in an interview in state media“Everybody has a very good heart.”

Spicy Panda tweeted a state media report about another American competitor, freestyle skier Aaron Blunck. In remarks published by the official China Daily, Mr. Blunck praised China’s Covid protocols.

“#AaronBlunck has revealed a real China that is completely different from what some of the US media have said!” Post by Spicy Panda read.

Steven Lee Myers reports from Beijing, Paul Mozur from Seoul and Jeff Kao from New York. Claire Fu and John Liu research contributions. How China used Bots and fake Twitter accounts to shape the Olympics

Fry Electronics Team

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