Social media platforms the front line in narrative war between China and West
- Deceptive accounts promoting pro-Western narratives removed by Twitter, Facebook and others
- Expert warns that US risks reputational damage if found to be involved in covert campaign
The US and the United Kingdom were behind covert influence operations that used more than 200 social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms to undermine the voices of countries including China as part of the narrative war, according to a paper published recently by Graphika, a social media analytics firm, and the Stanford Internet Observatory.
The platforms’ investigations led to the removal of the deceptive accounts, which promoted pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Although no technical details of the investigations were disclosed to researchers, the paper said Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, believed the accounts, removed on the grounds of “platform manipulation and spam” and “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, were part of pro-Western online influence operations that focused on Russia’s actions but also criticised China on issues ranging from Xinjiang to trade practices.
The report, published last month, said Twitter linked the accounts’ origins to the United States and the UK, while Meta said the ones on its platforms originated in the US.
A “qualitative review of content samples associated with each account” revealed “inauthentic practices to conduct online influence operations”, the report said. They included posing as independent media outlets, posting memes and short videos, and creating fake personas with computer-generated faces.
Jessica Brandt, policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative, said that if the pro-Western influence campaign was operated by the US, it was a reputationally risky thing to do.
“Washington really needs to resist the temptation to respond to information manipulation in kind because doing so can only undermine its own moral authority,” she said. “Democracies depend on a healthy information space to thrive, so polluting that space will ultimately do more harm to ourselves than our competitors.”
Graphika and Stanford’s analysis is the latest evidence that a narrative war is being waged between the US and China as they scramble to bolster their global discourse power.
Twitter closed nearly a thousand accounts that it said were based in mainland China for spreading disinformation during the Hong Kong protests in 2019. It said they were linked to a “significant state-backed information operation” that sought to “undermine the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground”.
Alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang have resulted in intense criticism in recent years and the imposition of sanctions by Washington and its allies.
The merits of their respective political systems and the basis of their relations with smaller nations also feature in that effort.
Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s political science department, said China’s influence operation was bigger and more robust.
To “tell China’s story well” is part of China’s diplomatic strategy for using state media and private actors to consolidate and innovate external propaganda.
The University of Oxford released a paper last year on China’s public diplomacy operations that analysed Chinese state-controlled media outlets and diplomatic accounts and how they were used to expand China’s influence operations on Twitter. Diplomats and state media accounts received lots of engagement from what the paper identified as “superspreader” accounts – inauthentic accounts that retweeted state-backed content in just seconds.