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Twitter removes over 170,000 accounts linked to Chinese propaganda

Foreign ministry says company should instead purge accounts 'smearing' country

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Twitter announced Thursday that it had removed over 173,000 accounts from China that were spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues, including politics in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"[The accounts] were tweeting predominantly in Chinese languages and spreading geopolitical narratives favorable to the Communist Party of China," Twitter said in a blog post.

The San Francisco-headquartered social network found 23,750 accounts linked to China that comprise a "highly engaged core network," and about 150,000 "amplifier" accounts that were designed to boost content from the core network.

All the accounts have been removed for violating the platform's manipulation policies, Twitter said.

China's foreign ministry blasted Twitter's move at its daily briefing on Friday.

"If [the company] has interpreted praises of China's efforts in containing the coronavirus outbreak as misinformation, that is pointless," said spokesperson Hua Chunying. 

Calling China the "biggest victim of misinformation," she said, "If Twitter really wants to make a difference, what it should do is to shut down accounts that smear China."

This was not the first time Twitter has taken down accounts associated with Chinese government propaganda efforts. In August 2019, the company removed 200,000 accounts originating from China that were created to "deliberately and specifically attempt to sow political discord in Hong Kong."

While Hong Kong protests remain a key topic in the content tweeted by the latest batch of removed accounts, a study by Stanford Internet Observatory in partnership with Twitter found that coronavirus is the new center of the Chinese bots' misinformation campaign.

The research found the removed China-linked accounts were pushing narratives around COVID-19 in favor of the country, such as praising China's response to the virus. They occasionally contrasted China's response with that of the U.S. government or Taiwan's response, or used the presence of the virus as a means to attack Hong Kong activists.

Tweeting activity around COVID-19 from Chinese bots ramped up in late January this year and spiked in late March, according to Stanford researchers.

Misinformation campaign around the global pandemic has been rampant across all social media platforms. A Carnegie Mellon University research published in May said that almost half of Twitter accounts sharing coronavirus tweets are likely bots.

Twitter is officially blocked in China. However, more and more Chinese officials and state-run media have joined the platform in recent months to fight U.S.-led accusations of the country mishandling the COVID-19 outbreak, human rights violations and other issues.

Additional reporting by Coco Liu in Hong Kong. 

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