Twitter takes down Beijing-backed influence operation pushing coronavirus messages

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Twitter (TWTR.N) said on Thursday that it had removed more than 170,000 accounts associated with a Beijing-backed influence operation that delivered deceptively positive news to the Chinese government, including about the corona virus.

FILE PHOTO: The Twitter app is loaded on an iPhone in this illustration photo taken on July 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California, USA. REUTERS / Mike Blake

The company has blocked a core network of 23,750 highly active accounts and a larger network of approximately 150,000 "repeater" accounts to improve the content of the core accounts.

Twitter and researchers who analyzed the accounts said the network was largely an echo chamber of fake accounts without much traction.

The company also removed two smaller government-sponsored operations that it attributed to Russia and Turkey, both of which focused on domestic audiences.

Twitter said the Chinese network had links to a previous government-sponsored operation that Twitter, Facebook (FB.O) and Google’s YouTube (TogetL.O) that had driven misleading stories about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.

The new operation also focused heavily on Hong Kong, but also promoted news about the coronavirus pandemic, exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and Taiwan, the researchers said.

Renee DiResta of Stanford Internet Observatory said the network's coronavirus activity increased in late January as the outbreak spread beyond China and increased in March.

Reports praised China's response to the virus and also used the pandemic to fight US and Hong Kong activists, she said.

Open source researchers from Graphika and Bellingcat previously announced the reappearance of the so-called "Spamouflage Dragon" network after it became inactive after the company's branches last summer.

The US State Department said in May that it had found a network of spurious Twitter accounts with "highly likely" links to China that are spreading false coronavirus claims.

Twitter pushed back the claims at the time, saying that the 5,000 accounts identified by the agency included legitimate non-governmental organizations and journalists.

A Twitter spokeswoman said on Thursday that the remote network had nothing to do with what the State Department had identified.

Reporting by Katie Paul; Edited by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown

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