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Analysis Russia is intending to set up its “own internet” according to a number of Russian news sources citing a document signed by President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
At a meeting at the end of the October, the Russian Security Council ordered its telecoms ministry to look at a “system of backup DNS root name servers, independent of the control of ICANN, IANA and VeriSign, and capable of servicing the requests of users from the listed countries in the case of faults or targeted intervention,” according to the policy document, which RBC authenticated this week.
The “backup” servers would be placed in BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – and be exclusively for their use. The rationale for setting up such a system is, according to the document, “the increased capabilities of western countries to carry out offensive operations in information space, and their willingness to use them.”
The document also points to the “dominance of the US and several EU countries in matters of internet control,” as justification for setting up the alternative platform.
Its stated goal is to ensure that, from Moscow’s point of view, Russian .ru websites remain accessible even if the .ru top-level domain is removed or hijacked in the main root zone file; the implication being that the United States could use the web as a weapon, and force changes onto the internet’s main address book to effectively knock Russian websites and services offline. The world’s domain name system is run by ICANN, a non-profit based in California, USA, and could be leaned on by Uncle Sam, it’s feared.
Several Russian news outlets referenced a 2016 interview with Alexey Platonov, the director general of the Technical Center of Internet (TCI) – .ru’s technical body – to explain why such a system is necessary.
In that chat, Platonov said that in 2014 the Russian Ministry of Communications tested the stability of the global domain name system, and found that “the DNS network worked inadequately” if “information about the .ru [top-level] domain was removed from the ICANN database.” In other words, the .ru domain space was at the mercy of someone modifying IANA’s root zone file, the central address book of the internet.
As a result of that exercise, Platonov said, “TCI, [Russian internet exchange] MSK-IX and other telecommunications companies had to maintain the performance of the national segment of the Internet,” and noted that MSK-IX has its own backup server with a mirror of the planet’s DNS root zone file.
Russian internet engineers had to, essentially, set up machines to keep .ru domains online regardless of whatever changes ICANN and its IANA department implemented, allowing the nation to use its native websites even if the top-level domain .ru was somehow blocked globally.
Platonov explained: “With such a backup server, you can make the system continue to work – that is, ICANN ‘removes’ domain information from the root servers, but it is stored on our server.”
So, that’s the background context. This Putin-signed policy document has been widely reported as a sign that Russia is setting up its own version of the internet, however, you can start to see it’s not quite that.
Setting aside the question of whether the United States would ever use the domain name system as a weapon – especially having handed full control of the DNS platform to ICANN in 2016 – the reality is that there are already numerous “backups” of the root zone file.
First up, it is important to understand how the world’s domain-name system works. There is a single root zone file – a rudimentary text document – that lists all the top-level domains (TLDs) on the public internet, such as .com and .uk, and each entry points to the authoritative name servers for that TLD.
Those next-level name servers are each under the control of whatever outfit runs each TLD, and those servers provide the addresses of other name servers that can resolve the domain names underneath the top-level domain into an IPv4 or IPv6 network address to connect to.
For example, when a browser tries to connect to theregister.com, the software goes to a .com TLD name server, owned and run by Verisign, based in Virginia, United States, for further information on how to connect to the site.
The vast majority of internet users’ requests for a specific domain name never actually go to either the TLD server nor to one of the 13 official root zone servers, because their ISP – or their DNS lookup provider, such as OpenDNS – will have cached the details of common domain names in order to speed things up.
So type in theregister.com and the chances are that your ISP’s DNS resolver already knows the server’s IPv4 address of where our website resides. What the ISP will typically do is check back with the various TLD servers around the globe at least twice a day for any changes. And those TLD servers will themselves typically check back with one of the 13 official root servers twice a day to make sure there are no changes.
This is how DNS works, and it’s why, if you make a big change to your website – its server location for example – you are warned that it may take a day for everyone on the internet to reach it (in reality most internet users will do so within an hour or so).
So back to “backups” of the DNS. There are already “backups” for the 13 official root servers that form the top level of the internet. There are mirrors of these systems, and they are all over the world. In fact, the organizations that maintain the root zone file – ICANN and its IANA department – actively encourage the provisioning of such mirrors because these machines will provide greater global redundancy and stability in the event of an electronic or physical attack or something like a natural disaster.
You can see a map of where all these hundreds of instances are across the globe. According to that dataset, Russia already has, er, 10 root server mirrors. It already has skin in the mirror game. If Uncle Sam or ICANN went bananas and maliciously edited the root zone file to boot, say, .ru off the internet, there are already mirrors in place within Russia to cope with the meddling.
It is a virtual certainty that there are lots of organizations and governments who have their own DNS failsafe systems in place right now as well as these mirrors in case the root servers are compromised. If Russia wants to deploy more mirrors and connect them up, be our guest. But quite why it has to kick up such a fuss over it is a little baffling.
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Russia is fully capable of launching its own “parallel internet” if its relationship with the West continues to deteriorate, a top diplomat in Moscow has said.
Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, senior officials have repeatedly stoked fears about the internet in general, which Putin claimed was a product of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as recently as 2014. Over the past few years, the Kremlin has introduced new laws increasing oversight of the internet, granting state watchdogs the right to take down websites without a court’s ruling, demanding all big sites relocate servers to Russia if they handle Russians’ data and mandating internet providers of keeping records of all communications.
The suspicious attitude Russian officials have toward the web has prompted Putin’s internet policy adviser German Klimenko to say the West may “push a button” and disconnect Russian from the internet. But according to the Russian foreign ministry’s head of the Department on New Threats, Ilya Rogachev, Moscow is entirely capable of activating a rival network.From left, Vladimir Putin, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder look at a screen as they attend the inauguration of the Nord Stream Project information mount at the gas compressor station ‘Portovaya’ outside Vyborg, September 6, 2011. Putin and other officials have repeatedly voiced variably informed worries about foreign control of Russia’s internet. Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
“What would lead to this more than anything else is the policy of our Western partners, imposing double standards,” Rogachev told state news agency Itar-Tass. He did not specify what exactly he was referring to but later added that he believed Western methods of censorship online “were developed a great deal more than in Russia.”
“If these double standards continue to be imposed, then, in the most unpleasant of perspectives in this regard, can we speak of creating a so-called parallel internet,” he added, explaining that Russia is not actively working on such a project at the moment. “The technical, financial, intellectual and all other capabilities for this, we have, but I don’t think that it is something anybody wants strongly.”
The strategy of a state-limited internet, or “internet sovereignty,” has spawned several debates, including a suggested analog to the web available only to Russia and a handful of neighboring states named after the famous Soviet cartoon character Cheburashka. Discussed in Russia’s Senate in 2014, officials have not publicly revisited the topic since.
Putin’s security council once again broached the topic of an internet more dependent on the Kremlin’s rulings in November, but this time presented it as a potential joint venture between the forum for emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, RBC reported. The project reportedly handed to the Russian Ministry of Communications last year had a deadline of next month.
The number of Internet users in China soared past 200 million in 2007, a new report from the country’s quasi-government Internet overseer said Thursday.
China’s Internet population stood at 210 million at the end of last year, up 53 percent from the same time in 2006 when there were 137 million, the China Internet Network Information Centre said in its semi-annual report on Internet use here.
That figure puts China just 5 million users away from becoming the world’s largest wired nation — and with only about 16 percent of the population online. At its current growth rate, China will become the world’s top Internet market sometime in the next few months.
The greatest growth came from users under 18 and over 30, CNNIC said. One of the most surprising statistics from the new report indicates that about 40 percent of users added over the last year, over 29 million, came from rural areas. Even in the January 2007 report, the vast majority of Chinese Netizens were based in major urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Also surprising among the new results is that China’s most popular Internet application is online music, used by 86.6 percent of those surveyed, followed by instant messaging with 81 percent. E-mail placed only fifth, with 56.5 percent using it.
CNNIC’s survey provides the most reliable information about Internet use in China, although its methodology is translucent at best. It does not reveal its sample size, nor does it reveal what consists of an Internet user except that the person used the Internet at least once in the month prior to when the survey was taken.
While the new statistics may seem impressive, it highlights how Internet usage in the country still lags behind mobile phone use, and how even greater usage could be spurred by more access through wireless devices. “China’s admittedly impressive user statistics hide an important fact: only a fraction of those users have regular access to a PC,” said David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based technology consultancy.
Despite limited PC access for some users, Chinese Internet users have embraced the Internet as a means of expression. “In addition to an increase in overall numbers, you also see a rise in the number of Netizens creating content on BBS and blogs, making Chinese Netizens some of the most active participants in the Web 2.0 phenomena in the world,” said Sam Flemming, founder and CEO of CIC, an Internet word of mouth monitoring firm based in Shanghai.
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In the commercial sector, online shopping and online payment users accounted for 71 per cent of China’s total online users.
The number of internet users in China has crossed the 800 million mark as of June 2018, according to an official report today, making the Asian economic giant home to the world’s biggest online community.
The number of internet users in China rose to 802 million in the first half of this year, an increase of about 3.8 per cent over the figures registered six months ago, with over 98 per cent accessing the net through mobiles, the 42nd bi-annual statistical report from the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) said.
The increase brought the country’s internet availability rate to 57.7 per cent, with 26.3 per cent of internet users living in rural areas, it said, adding that between January and June, 788 million Chinese used mobile phones to surf the internet, making up 98.3 per cent of the total internet users.
Their cumulative mobile internet traffic reached 26.6 billion GB, an increase of 199.6 per cent, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, quoting the report.
The fast spread of internet in China in the last few years sparked a wave of social media revolution leading millions of people taking to Weibo, regarded as the Chinese twitter, breaking the monopoly of the state media.
However, the government controls the content using massive firewalls to prevent all politically sensitive materials from the net.
In the commercial sector, online shopping and online payment users accounted for 71 per cent of China’s total online users.
As per the report, the total number of online shoppers was 569 million. The value of online retail sales reached 4.08 trillion yuan (about USD 594 billion) during the first half of 2018, a year-on-year increase of 30.1 per cent.
Online takeout service users also increased during this period, with 43.6 per cent of Chinese internet users using mobile phones to order takeout food.
In the first half of 2018, the internet has provided more comprehensive and profound impacts on China’s employment situation, the report said, adding that “it provides the youth with low-cost and low-threshold opportunities, stimulates large-scale business start-ups, and unleashes grassroots innovation capabilities.”
By June 2018, users of China’s online government services reached 470 million, accounting for 58.6 per cent of the total online users, it said.
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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.
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.
Twitter is well aware of China’s influence operations. In August and September, the platform announced that it had suspended more than 5,000 suspected Chinese state-controlled accounts and released data about them. Twitter also banned around 200,000 related accounts that had been created but were not yet very active.
An analysis by ProPublica shows that the Chinese government’s covert attempts to wield influence on Twitter have persisted. Our examination of an interlocking group of accounts within our data linked the effort to OneSight (Beijing) Technology Ltd., a Beijing-based internet marketing company. OneSight, records show, held a contract to boost the Twitter following of China News Service, the country’s second-largest state-owned news agency. The news service operates under the United Front Work Department, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party long responsible for influence operations in foreign countries. OneSight declined to comment and China News Service did not respond to our inquiries.
We asked Twitter whether it was aware of this continuing activity from Chinese-backed influence accounts. We identified some of the fake accounts, and sent a list of questions about the campaign. A spokesperson declined to respond specifically, instead providing the following statement: “Using technology and human review in concert, we proactively monitor Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them. If we identify further information campaigns on our service that we can reliably attribute to state-backed activity either domestic or foreign-led, we will disclose them.”
ProPublica’s research tracked how the government-linked influence accounts that had targeted political dissidents and the Hong Kong protests turned their focus to the coronavirus outbreak. During the height of the epidemic in China, many of them became cheerleaders for the government, calling on citizens to unite in support of efforts to fight the epidemic and urging them to “dispel online rumors.”
With the epidemic spreading across the world, these accounts have sought to promote the Chinese government’s image abroad and shore up its support at home. One typical recent tweet in Chinese proclaimed: “We were not scared during the outbreak because our country was our rearguard. Many disease-fighting warriors were thrust to the front lines. Even more volunteers helped in seemingly trivial yet important ways.”
Another post in English trumpeted aid the Chinese government recently provided to Italy. It came from the Twitter handle @RNA_Chinese, an account that appears to have been an attempt to fool the casual reader into believing it was coming from the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia (@RFA_Chinese).
Others accounts we found have taken a darker turn in response to the pandemic, using it as a vehicle for disinformation and attacks on Beijing’s usual political opponents.
“We will completely wipe out the belligerent rioters, just like the coronavirus!” declared a user who called herself Melinda Butler. Her post slammed Joshua Wong, a leader of the Hong Kong protests who spoke out in support of a medical workers’ strike in early February. Another post by Butler called on the Hong Kong Hospital Authority to “clean out” the striking “black medical workers,” alongside a graphic accusing protestors of wanting a “color revolution” in Hong Kong.
Yet another Butler tweet featured a graphic accusing foreign politicians of interfering in Chinese domestic affairs, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and a number of other U.S. legislators. Also included in the lineup was a State Department employee scapegoated by disinformation campaigns by Chinese state media during the Hong Kong protests. “Hong Kong belongs to China,” the graphic read in bold characters, “Resist meddling by foreign powers!” A logo for the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, was displayed prominently below.
Butler’s account showed all the signs of being a low-quality fake. The account was new, created in January 2020, and it offered no personal or biographical details. It followed no one else on Twitter and had a single follower for its obsessive posts about the coronavirus outbreak and the Hong Kong protests. The account has since been suspended by Twitter.
Butler’s posts were written to sound like a Hong Konger — in vernacular Cantonese with the traditional Chinese characters widely used in Hong Kong. But whoever was writing the posts occasionally slipped and included some of the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China. And though the account was ostensibly created by a person named Melinda Butler, the profile photo showed a middle-aged Chinese woman wearing a beige baseball cap.
That photo can be seen all over the internet — ProPublica found it used on nearly a dozen user accounts under a variety of monikers on various social media platforms. One account spammed horoscopes and product promotions on the social networking site Weibo. On a Chinese adult e-commerce site, another account bearing that photo left a positive review for a male enhancement spray called Blisswater: “After using this item the effect was especially clear. Our bedroom became much more harmonious, and I’m very satisfied. Thumbs up.”
Many of the fake Twitter accounts that ProPublica identified, such as Butler’s, appeared to have been automatically generated using a bank of fake profile photos and usernames. But others, like Keegan’s, belonged to real Twitter users at some point, indicating that the accounts had likely been hijacked. ProPublica wrote computer programs to document millions of interactions between the 10,000 suspected fake accounts and trace an interrelated network of more than 2,000. The true scale of the influence campaign is likely much bigger; our tracking suggests that the accounts we identified comprise only a portion of the operation.
We found a pattern of coordinated activity among the fake accounts that appeared to be aimed at building momentum for particular storylines. Central accounts with more legitimate-looking histories such as Keegan’s would make eye-catching posts; for example, a political message accompanied by a bold graphic or a meme, or a provocative video. An army of obvious fake accounts would then engage the posts with likes, reposts and positive comments, presumably to boost their visibility in Twitter’s algorithms.
Posts also used hashtags about trending topics such as the coronavirus outbreak or the Hong Kong protests to gain visibility for an account that had few followers. Other posts would use hashtags unique to the influence network, presumably to try to make them trend on Twitter. Remarkably, some of the fake accounts accumulated hundreds, and, in a few cases, thousands of followers (It’s not clear whether the fakes were being followed by real people or other fake accounts.)
Those accounts’ content and behavior closely mirrored the tactics of the Chinese government influence campaigns publicly unmasked by Twitter in August and September 2019. Elise Thomas, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, co-authored a report that discovered content and tactics that we found in the activities of the more recent influence network. In both instances, posts criticized the Hong Kong protests and government opponents such as Guo Wengui and were primarily made during working hours in Beijing. In addition, accounts with established histories suddenly began posting propaganda and disinformation in a different language. Thomas’ analysis found covert Twitter campaigns by the Chinese government going back at least two years: “These actors appear to have been active for much longer than we previously realized,” she said.
ProPublica uncovered additional evidence that these accounts operated as part of a Chinese government influence campaign. Posts in the network were often accompanied by a chorus of approving comments from obviously fake accounts. The same comments were used over and over to create false engagement. Comment texts were often lifted word-for-word from state editorials, which have long served as political lodestars for government agencies and party officials.
While some hijacked accounts deleted old posts and laundered evidence from their profile, hints of their origins sometimes remained. One such example is @HKguardian, a Hong Kong account that claims to be a Twitter handle for a citizens’ league protecting the city from the protesters.
The Chinese-language account was created in 2009 but did not appear to make any posts until September 2019. We found several posts in Portugese from July 2009 when the account was first created. @HKguardian now has more than 4,000 followers and the appearance of a legitimate account. It is currently temporarily restricted by Twitter for unusual activity.
Some of the people banned by Twitter have popped up under new handles. Consider Amanda Chen, a widely followed account claiming to belong to the wife of a Hong Kong policeman. Its Twitter posts attracted attention from pro-Beijingmedia during the 2019 protests. The persona has tweeted under at least two other handles (@HKvigilance and @AmandaChen202) previously suspended by Twitter. Whoever she is, she now posts with the handle @Nuca12345, an account that was created a decade ago but had no activity before October 2019. @Nuca12345 has amassed more than 4,000 followers in its brief posting history. We have found no independent evidence that the real Amanda Chen exists.
While we cannot measure the exact reach and effectiveness of the campaign, it has attracted notice from its target audience. Skeptical internet users reported to Twitter suspected fake accounts that we had also identified. Many fake accounts within the network we identified were suspended, but it is unclear which of these suspensions resulted from users’ reports, and which from Twitter’s automated systems for detecting coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The evidence linking the influence network to OneSight, the Beijing-based internet marketing company connected to the Chinese government, is circumstantial. In 2019, a handful of fake boosting accounts within the network we identified promoted OneSight’s own social media marketing posts with likes. The data released by Twitter in September 2019 also included a number of posts connected to OneSight’s Twitter account. Our review of the data we collected found no other similar company benefiting from similar boosting.
Outside social media contractors have long been suspected of pushing Chinese government messaging abroad. Last year, ProPublica obtained a copy of a 1,244,880 renminbi (around $175,000) contractwon by OneSight to increase the Twitter following of China News Service. We also found the influence network boosting the Twitter account of China News Service, as well as other Chinese state media Twitter accounts, including Xinhua and People’s Daily.
The activities of the influence network were consistent with the timing of the government’s handling of the epidemic and the themes it was publicly pushing. Discussions of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan began swirling on Chinese social media in early January, but the network made no mention of it, continuing to criticize the Hong Kong protests and attack political dissidents. On Jan. 29, six days after the Chinese central government imposed a lockdown on Wuhan, the influence network suddenly shifted its focus to the coronavirus epidemic. That same day, OneSight announced a new app that tracked virus-related information. The announcement was accompanied by a graphic declaring that OneSight would “transmit the correct voice of China” to the world.
OneSight bills itself as the top overseas social marketing company in China. It contracts with domestic companies and government agencies to help them market their brands or goods on social media seen outside of China. Its website names prominent Chinese companies such as Huawei, Alibaba and Baidu as clients. Besides China News Service, its state media clients include China Daily, the English-language newspaper, and CGTN, China’s foreign language TV news channel, both of which are run by the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party. The state-owned news service Xinhua News Agency is also a client.
CEO Li Lei, who founded the company in October 2017 (about two years before the Australian report), is a social media entrepreneur who, according to media interviews, previously worked at the Beijing city foreign propaganda department. In China, government propaganda departments exist at various levels of government and are responsible for a wide range of activities, including public information and public relations, as well as censorship and propaganda, both online and offline.
OneSight provides its clients social media marketing services and a social media monitoring and management tool. ProPublica’s review of a free version of the tool found that it can be used to post messages en masse across a number of accounts on overseas social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook. The tool is used by China Daily’s official Twitter account. However, we did not find evidence of it being used within the influence network.
OneSight’s product tutorials show a familiarity with coordinated campaigns and government entity clients. One post tells clients how to regain access to Facebook if an account is suspended for behavior violating the terms of service. Another analyzed Huawei’s Facebook followers, implying that OneSight could make its social media fans look more natural and healthy. It also posted an analysis of how to make the social media followings of local governments appear more realistic.
The Chinese government’s information operations are not monolithic. Lotus Ruan, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and an expert on Chinese social media, explained that domestic censorship is “decentralized and fragmented, and the burden of information control is downloaded to private companies.” Government agencies rely on private companies for social media work outside of the Great Firewall as well. During 2019, as OneSight won its contract with China News Service, China’s Cyberspace Administration and Foreign Affairs Ministry also put out similar tenders. This follows a global trend of internet marketing companies being hired for political influence campaigns online.
The Chinese government has also made an official push onto social media in recent years. Its diplomats are logging onto Twitter to help fight its PR battles, developing a combative, Trump-like approach to defending the regime online. On Twitter, government spokespeople have unapologeticallyspreaddisinformation about the coronavirus, even promoting the conspiracy theory that Americans brought it to Wuhan. In official social media, China typically seeks to project an image of a well-governed state and a responsible international actor, according to Matthew Schrader, China analyst at the U.S.-based think tank Alliance for Securing Democracy. However, Schrader said, “the party has been dipping its toe into outright disinformation when it has sought to deflect blame for its own policy missteps.”
Schrader says that government influence campaigns on the Chinese internet, leaning on the crutch of censorship, have largely been successful. But outside of its borders, without compliant platforms and coercive state power, similar covert propaganda campaigns, presumably by various departments and their contractors, appear to have troubleachieving the same success.
Despite that, the Chinese government’s efforts persist and evolve as the coronavirus spreads across the globe. Over the past few weeks, ProPublica obtained records of propositions to several prominent Chinese Twitter users from what appear to be fake accounts. One private message offered a user with more than 10,000 followers a payment to promote a video of Wuhan’s battle against the coronavirus “for the public benefit.”
Another account calling itself an “international cultural exchange” company offered 1,700 renminbi (around $240) per post to the Chinese Australian artist Badiucao. The political dissident has nearly 70,000 followers on Twitter. After a day of feigned negotiations with the company, he obtained and shared with ProPublica a sample of what he would be asked to post — a 15-second propaganda clip. The video sought to show that the government defeated the coronavirus and everything is back on track. “This is what Chinese propagandists call a ‘positive energy wave,’” he said. He didn’t get the name of the company. It ultimately declined to provide a contract, replying: “Upon client review, your posting style does not fit this promotional topic.”
Badiucao is confident, based on their interactions, that the company he was communicating with was working for the Chinese government. When asked why they would contact such an outspoken opponent of the regime, he speculated that the company used social media monitoring tools to identify their targets (evidence shows they reached out to Chinese-speaking Twitter users having more than 10,000 followers). But the company seemed unfamiliar with the diaspora community on Twitter, he said: “They’re marketing pros, but they don’t have a nuanced political understanding.”
Recently exposed to the coronavirus himself, Badiucao spoke to ProPublica from self-isolation in Melbourne. “I resettled in Australia because I wanted a free and safe environment. I believed in the democratic system here,” he reflected, “but with the virus, we’re not even safe if we move away. And just like the coronavirus, values can be contagious as well.”
Daniel Huang and Lexi Campbell contributed research.
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