A joint study by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and the Associated Press (AP) has examined the way in which Chinese diplomats use social media to promote the country’s vision.
According to the study, PRC diplomats made 201,382 tweets – an average of 778 per day over a nine-month period from 9th June 2020 to 23rd February 2021. These posts received almost seven million likes, one million comments, and 1.3 million retweets. Diplomats made 34,041 Facebook posts over this period.
The report claims that China has “significantly expanded its online public diplomacy efforts” and adds that “the PRC makes use of both state-controlled media outlets and over 270 diplomatic accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to amplify the PRC’s perspective on global affairs and current events.”
The investigators discovered that only one in eight Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts were labelled as such, and contend that there is a network of unidentified accounts amplifying the diplomats’ message. In the UK, the study looked at thousands of tweets by (then-Ambassador) Liu Xiaoming and the official account of the embassy in London. The Oxford team identified 62 accounts, representing 44% of the ambassador’s retweets and 30% of the embassy’s, as forming a co-ordinated group of supporters.
The research found that “nearly a third” of these accounts “were created within minutes of each other on just five days and the vast majority only amplify and engage with the PRC’s diplomats to the UK, but no other PRC diplomats.”
The OII report states, “In a world where social media platforms have been increasingly influential in global communications, our study has identified another area where powerful actors systematically exploit the facilities provided by these platforms. Our study provides extensive evidence for where and how a powerful state actor like the PRC may be able to create an illusion of inflated influence over global discourse.”
Marcel Schliebs, lead Oxford researcher, said his findings reveal “the actions and reach of China’s digital publicity campaigning” and “can help us develop a better understanding and response to China’s increasingly assertive global facing propaganda strategy.” Schliebs called for greater cooperation with social media platforms and added that “every day social media users can also contribute by carefully checking what information they are consuming or amplifying while using these platforms.”
The report comes alongside a rise in the spread of disinformation through online platforms in a number of countries, including by Western politicians. The OII clarified that “as our report uses open source data, we are not able to attribute this coordinated operation to any state or non-state actor.”
Commenting on the findings, the Chinese embassy in London defended China’s right to express its opinions online. A diplomatic source told the Associated Press: “If it is against the rules of social media to retweet the Chinese embassy’s tweets, then shouldn’t these rules be more applicable to retweets of malicious rumours, smears and false information against China? We hope relevant companies will not adopt double standards.”