More than 30,000 Twitter accounts have been pulled down after spreading propaganda linked to governments in China, Russia and Turkey.
The social media company revealed on Friday that these accounts had been found to be spreading state-linked information, and had been placed into Twitter’s archive for these types of accounts.
The accounts have also been suspended for various violations of platform manipulation policies.
“Every account and piece of content associated with these operations has been permanently removed from the service,” Twitter said in a statement.
Foreign affairs minister Marisa Payne said these revelations were very serious.
“It shows just how serious and extensive the problem of disinformation is,” Payne told ABC Radio National. “In the middle of a pandemic, this is dangerous. It’s unacceptable. It has the potential to undermine global health efforts and trust.
“So shining a light on it, countering it with accurate information, is absolutely the best disinfectant and I welcome Twitter’s efforts in this regard.”
The majority of the accounts were linked to the Communist Party of China and its continued effort to target pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong with online propaganda.
Twitter found that 23,750 formed a core network that were “highly engaged” and spreading large amounts of content. These accounts were “largely caught early and failed to achieve considerable traction on the service”.
A further 150,000 “amplifier” accounts were also discovered, which were designed to boost the content from the core network. These accounts had little to no followers and were “strategically designed to artificially inflate impression metrics and engage with the core accounts”, Twitter said.
“This entire network was involved in a range of manipulative and coordinated activities.
“They were tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favourable to the Communist Party of China, while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.”
Twitter shared the disclosure with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which released a report on the China-linked accounts on Friday.
The report found nearly 350,000 tweets linked to these accounts between January 2018 and April 2020 targeting Hong Kong protesters.
These tweets were linked to working hours in Beijing, spiking between 8am to 5pm and dropping off over the weekend.
The tweets contained mostly images with embedded Chinese-language text. Nearly 80 per cent of the accounts had no followers at all.
“The operation has shown remarkable persistence to stay online in various forms since 2017, and its tenacity has allowed for shifts in tactics and the narrative focus as emerging events – including the COVID-19 pandemic and US protests in May and June 2020 – have been incorporated into pro-Chinese government narratives,” the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report said.
“Based on the data in the takedown dataset, while these efforts are sufficiently technically sophisticated to persist, they currently lack the linguistic and cultural refinement to drive engagement on Twitter through high-follower networks, and thus far have had relatively low impact on the platform.”
While these accounts were separate, Twitter linked them with activity from China the company disclosed in August last year. This involved the shutting down of more than 200,000 accounts taking part in a “signification state-backed information operation” linked to the Chinese government targeting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Twitter has also taken down 1,152 accounts linked with Current Policy, a media website taking part in state-backed political propaganda in Russia, found to be promoting the United Russia Party and targeting political dissidents.
“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,” Twitter said.
Another 7,340 accounts were also found to be targeting domestic audiences in Turkey.
“Based on our analysis of the network’s technical indicators and account behaviours, the collection of fake and compromised accounts was being used to amplify political narratives favourable to the AK Parti, and demonstrated strong support for President Erdogan,” Twitter said.
Going forward, Twitter has pledged to offer more clarity in its public archive around impression counts and other measures to show the tangible impact of these types of accounts, and also formalise academic partnership to better understand the issues and to host an online conference on the matter later this year or early next year.