How China is using bots and fake Twitter accounts to shape the Olympics

This article is published with ProPublicathe nonprofit investigative newsroom.

BEIJING — In the Potemkin Village of Chinese propaganda, the Winter Olympics unfolded as an unmitigated success, a celebration of sporting and political harmony that obscured — critics say whitewashed — flaws and violations of rights of the country.

In Beijing 2022, the hills are snowy and not brown as usual at this time of year. A Uyghur skier is the symbol of national unity, tennis player Peng Shuai is just a curious spectator. Athletes and foreign journalists praise the polite volunteers and marvel at the high-speed trains and robots that boil dumplings and mix drinks.

While China’s control over what its domestic viewers and readers consume is well established, the country has been broadcasting its own version of the Games beyond its borders, with an arsenal of digital tools that arguably give the Chinese narrative greater range and more subtlety than ever before.

With bots, fake accounts, real influencers, and other tools, China was able to selectively alter the way events unfolded, even outside the country, promoting anything that bolsters the official, positive history of the Winter Olympics and trying to stifle anything. not.

“For the Chinese Communist Party, the Winter Olympics are inseparable from the larger political goal of building the country’s national image,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a watchdog organization. Referring to the country’s leader, he added, “This is what Xi Jinping called ‘telling China’s story well’.”

On Twitter, which is banned in China, Chinese state media and journalists, as well as diplomats, tried to boost the image of the Games, raving about the venues and cooing about the Olympic mascot.

China has also sought to influence online discussions in a more discreet way. The New York Times and ProPublica identified a network of more than 3,000 inauthentic-looking Twitter accounts that appeared to be coordinating to promote the Olympics by sharing state media posts with identical comments, for example. These accounts tended to be newly created with very few followers, mostly tweeted reposts and nothing of themselves, and seemed to work only to amplify official Chinese voices.

Some of their efforts have focused on an account called Spicy Panda, which posted cartoons and videos to push back against calls to boycott the Olympics. In a cartoon, Spicy Panda accused the United States of wielding “its weapon of deceptive propaganda to sully the Olympics”.

The tweet was reposted 281 times, all by the fake accounts, but received little engagement, a strong indication that the network stepped up to promote the message. Aside from the bursts of promotion, Spicy Panda’s posts about the Olympics received almost no attention.

An analysis of Spicy Panda followers found 861 accounts, 90% of which were created after December 1. . Then the accounts turned to the Olympics. (On Thursday, all but one of the accounts had been suspended, shortly after The Times and ProPublica asked Twitter about them.)

Spicy Panda seems to have a connection with iChongqing, a media-related multimedia platform based in Chongqing, a city in central China. Accounts that shared Spicy Panda’s posts often did the same with tweets from iChongqing’s account. IChongqing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other bot-like accounts promoted hashtags that appeared to be aimed at stifling criticism of China, a feature of previous campaigns.

They promoted content under hashtags like #Beijing2022 and #TogetherForASharedFuture, the official Olympic motto for this year. Some accounts repeatedly posted tweets with identical wording, such as: “China’s hosting of #Beijing2022 as planned has boosted the world’s confidence in the fight against the pandemic.”

Twitter said in an emailed statement that it had suspended hundreds of accounts identified by The Times and ProPublica for violating its platform manipulation and spamming policies. He said he was continuing to investigate the accounts’ links to state-backed information operations.

Even the Games’ official mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, a cuddly panda wearing an ice suit, has been the subject of an organized Twitter campaign, according to Albert Zhang, a researcher at the International Cyber ​​Policy Center in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Thousands of new or previously inactive accounts helped the mascot go viral, he said – which Chinese state media presented as proof of the mascot’s popularity and, by extension, that of people. Games.

“If you want to put out a lot of content about something like the Beijing Olympics, this is an easy way to do it,” Zhang said. He added that the ongoing campaign was like others sponsored by the Chinese state to push Beijing’s narrative on topics such as Covid-19 and the crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The information space inside China is reminiscent of the elaborate measures that have created the “closed loop” that keeps athletes, journalists and other participants strictly separated from the general public.

Inside the “closed loop” of official propaganda, the state carefully organizes almost everything ordinary Chinese people see or read. The effect was an Olympics free of scandal, criticism or bad news.

When the United States men’s hockey team faced an overmatched Chinese team, the match was not shown on the main state sports television channel, CCTV 5, and the 8-0 loss was not only mentioned at a glance in news reports. A state media slideshow focusing on the men’s figure skating competition glaringly omitted gold medalist Nathan Chen of the United States.

In Chinese footage of the Games, the mountains where many of the competitions take place were cleverly framed to exclude the dry, brown slopes in the background, until day eight, when a snowstorm covered them with icing. White.

One of the biggest political stories of these Games also unfolded outside China’s internet firewall: the appearance of Peng Shuai, the professional tennis player and three-time Olympian who caused a stir when she accused a senior Communist Party leader of sexually assaulting her.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach met her for dinner, as he promised when global outcry over her plight threatened to overshadow the Games. Ms. Peng has appeared in curling and figure skating, among other events. None of this was shown in China, where all references to her accusations were scrubbed, including later statements attributed to her claiming she had been misunderstood.

“It’s absolutely critical to understand that this isn’t just another story,” the China Media Project’s Bandurski said of the Olympics. “It’s a narrative that involves widespread censorship and the manipulation of public opinion, which is actually politics.”

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

The network aired videos emphasizing the Olympics as environmentally friendly and singing about strengthening Sino-Russian ties, punctuated by the presence of President Vladimir V. Putin at the opening ceremony.

China has defended its use of Twitter and Facebook, platforms it bans at home. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said last year that the sites were an “additional channel” to tackle negative portrayals in the West.

A US company, New Jersey-based Vippi Media, has signed a $300,000 contract with the Chinese Consulate General in New York to help promote the Games, according to the company’s filing with the Department of Justice. under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

As part of the deal, first reported by research group Open Secrets, the company promoted the Games by recruiting “social media stars” to post on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, the founder of the game said. the company, Vipinder Jaswal, in a telephone interview.

“They were very clear and I was very clear that this is just about the Olympics and the Olympics, nothing to do with politics,” he said.

Once the Games began, the drama of the sports themselves dominated the spotlight. Protests over China’s human rights record have not materialized, as some activists had hoped. On the contrary, many athletes gave praise.

“When you really meet the people here and talk to them,” Jenise Spiteri, the American snowboarder competing for Malta, said in an interview with state media, “everyone has a really good heart.”

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

“#AaronBlunck revealed the real China which is totally different from what some US media said!” Read Spicy Panda’s post.

Steven Lee Myers reported from Beijing, Paul Mozur from Seoul and Jeff Kao from New York. Claire Crazy and John Liu contributed to the research.