“There’s no clear evidence of state direction behind this trolling campaign,” the report said. “However, the campaign is having a significant political impact.”
Some troll accounts appear to have been mocked up to resemble the Chinese-language accounts of outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and the BBC, the researchers concluded.
“With the Hong Kong protests, the attacks we saw from Chinese state-linked accounts on Twitter were very much about outright attacks rather than this kind of trolling by impersonation”, said Thomas.
The troll network sought to amplify a claim, aired by World Health Organisation Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in early April, that he had been subject of online racism from Taiwan’s government.
By retweeting “apologies” purportedly from Taiwan, the trolls raised awareness of the dubious story, stirring more tensions between the two nations.
Linguistic analysis by the institute suggested the accounts were produced by mainland Chinese speakers.
“A network of sixty-five accounts purporting to be Taiwanese netizens started apologising to him via the hashtag #saysrytoTedros,” the report said.
Sixty per cent of those accounts originally tweeted in the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China, then switched to the traditional characters used in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen denied that Taiwan endorsed or encouraged racist comments about Ghebreyesus.
Maria Repnikova, a political scientist at Georgia State University in the US, describes the trolling as “bottom-up cyber nationalism”.
“Patriotic trolling has long been part of China’s larger information environment, both domestically and internationally,” she said.
“As Chinese citizens (including overseas Chinese students) have become increasingly nationalistic, this movement has taken on a shape of its own,” said Repnikova. “And that’s going to be something for the international community to reckon with in the years to come.”
The deceptive and disruptive use of social media through impersonation, pioneered by Reddit users and exploited by Russian trolls, underscores the growth of pro-Beijing propaganda (whether informal or state-sponsored) on social media.
A recent report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy notes that “teams of online nationalists can also be an effective way to ‘flood the zone’ on foreign social media platforms“.
An influx of pro-Beijing users on Reddit recently manipulated the “platform’s ‘up vote/down vote’ features to drown out criticism of China and the Chinese Communist Party,” the report said.
The unofficial nature of such campaigns doesn’t mean they aren’t effective, said Thomas.
“While it’s important to note that we have no reason to believe these troll accounts are state-linked, it’s also worth recognising that the potential impacts are the same regardless of whether it’s a state actor or not.”
Chris is Digital Foreign Editor.