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How China Built a Twitter Propaganda Machine Then Let It Loose on Coronavirus


WestVirginiaRebel

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WestVirginiaRebel
how-china-built-a-twitter-propaganda-machine-then-let-it-loose-on-coronavirus

Kalen Keegan, a college student at the University of Nebraska Omaha, immediately noticed when her Twitter account unleashed a torrent of posts in Chinese. “My other account got hacked👍🏽,” the soccer player posted on a replacement account. The new author tweeting as @Kalenkayyy had strong views on geopolitics — all aligned with the Chinese Communist Party. It was obsessed with the protests in Hong Kong, offered uncritical praise of the Hong Kong police and accused demonstrators of fomenting a “color revolution” backed by an “anti-Chinese American conspiracy.”

As the coronavirus outbreak led to a lockdown of Wuhan and its surrounding cities in late January, the Hong Kong posts were suddenly deleted. The account continued to post relentlessly in Chinese, but it now focused on the burgeoning epidemic. About a month later, her Twitter profile began to change in other ways. The reference to her college disappeared and her headshot was replaced by a generic photo of two people kissing. By the end of the week, her Twitter transformation was complete. @Kalenkayyy was now a Chinese propaganda-posting zombie account belonging to someone purportedly named Kalun Tang.

Her new tagline? “When women arm themselves with softness, they are the strongest.”

Later, the account deleted more of its tweets and unfollowed all of its former friends. It is currently temporarily restricted by Twitter for unusual activity.

 

20200326-Chinese-Twitter-Disinfo-Kk-3.jp Kalen Keegan’s Twitter account was hacked and transformed into a propaganda-posting zombie account. Screenshots of her Twitter profile dated Jan. 21, 2020 and March 22, 2020.

Since August 2019, ProPublica has tracked more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government. Among those are the hacked accounts of users from around the world that now post propaganda and disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, the Hong Kong protests and other topics of state interest. They included a professor in North Carolina; a graphic artist and a mother in Massachusetts; a web designer in the U.K.; and a business analyst in Australia. (It is unclear whether the current fake account holders hacked the accounts themselves or purchased them from elsewhere.) Suspected Chinese operatives have stepped up their efforts in recent days, according to private messages shared with ProPublica, offering influential Chinese-speaking Twitter users cash for favorable posts.

These efforts appear to be aimed at disparate audiences outside the country. Most of the posts we found are in Chinese and appear aimed at influencing the millions of ethnic Chinese who live outside of China’s borders. Others are in English. The tweets are seen by few people living in China; the Great Firewall blocks Twitter from the Chinese internet, though tech-savvy domestic users find workarounds.

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China's Twitter trolls.

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