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Sockpuppets Spin COVID Yarns: An Analysis of PRC-Attributed June 2020 Twitter takedown

Stanford Internet Observatory

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1. Complaint and Affidavit in Support of Application for Arrest Warrants
2. Tweeting through the great fire wall
3. Retweeting through the great fire wall
4. Tweeting through the Great Firewall

On June 11, 2020, Twitter announced the takedown of a collection of 23,750 accounts attributed to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with technical indicators linking the operation to the same actor responsible for the network of 200,000 accounts suspended in August 2019. Most of the 23,750 accounts in this disclosure were caught relatively quickly and thus failed to gain traction on the platform. Twitter’s assessment of the operation notes that these accounts were themselves part of a larger network, the remainder of which primarily served to retweet the core; the amplifiers were not included in the public takedown data set.

This June 2020 PRC-attributed operation had considerable topical overlap with the August 2019 operation, particularly concerning the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and attacks on Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui (now in exile in the United States). A small portion of the tweets occurred during the same timeframe as the 2019 operation, involving accounts found after that first takedown. However, more significantly, it appears that the PRC simply created new accounts to talk about the same topics after losing the first network. The personas are not well-developed and have no biographies or backstories that clearly articulate who they are supposed to be; the tone of the content creates the perception that the tweets are the opinions of an average Chinese person.

One notable narrative addition in this takedown is content related to the coronavirus pandemic. Other recent research, such as an analysis by Bellingcat, suggested the emergence of COVID-19 as a topical focus for likely-CCP accounts; this takedown offers concrete confirmation. The COVID-19 related content includes tweets cheerleading for the Chinese government, emphasizing Chinese unity, calling for global unity, and praising doctors and medical workers. It also pointedly criticizes the US epidemic response, quibbles over the international perception that Taiwan’s response was superior to China’s, and attacks Guo Wengui for allegedly spreading false news on the coronavirus and “discrediting China”.