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Twitter Promoted Accounts and Chinese Government Propaganda

One of the biggest issues with social media today is the ease with which disinformation and propaganda can be disseminated effectively. It is also a very secretive way, because it can be difficult to find out the extent to which accounts spread their message organically or through advertising. 



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Social media's advertising model allows people to pay to amplify their message. An example of this are Twitter's "followers campaigns." Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter, the company has been changing erratically, so I don't know if such campaigns still work the same way they used to. But as of February 8, 2023, Twitter business pages states:

"Follower Ads suggest Twitter accounts that people don't currently follow and may find interesting ... To expand your Twitter account's reach and grow your audience, start a followers campaign in your Twitter Ads account ... Follower Ads boost your follower growth, so they're best used when you want to build an engaged audience to amplify your message — on and off Twitter."

What could be more enticing to wealthy organizations and authoritarian regimes than a popular social media website telling them that they can pay to spread their propaganda? 

Back in 2021, I stumbled upon a promoted account named "RenKeNews", a self-described "Chinese correspondent in Europe". His ad's headline read: "Providing unique views & information about China. Follow me."



His account's bio had at least two iterations I'm aware of. The other one read: "Journalist in Europe. Reporting EU, China-Europe ties. Was in Berlin. Providing new views on China. Tweets=personal, retweets≠my views. block nasty tweets." His stated location was Berlin, Germany. 


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No more details were provided. Was he just a regular Chinese living in Europe and working as a freelancer? Was he working for a media outlet? He did not specify. 

His tweets, however, were quite suspicious, to say the least. They seemed to echo propaganda talking points of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  

For instance, he wrote that "Taiwan wants to unite Chinese mainland," a reference to Beijing's claim that Taiwan belongs to China



In another tweet, he wrote that a Deutsche Welle German reporter in China was harassed by a crowd because he might be spreading "fake news". 


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The incident he was referring to took place in July 2021 in the aftermath of severe flooding that hit the Chinese province of Henan. 

On July 24 of that year, Alice Su, Beijing Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, wrote on her Twitter account that she and German correspondent Mathias Boelinger were “surrounded by an angry crowd” while reporting from Henan’s capital Zhengzhou. The crowd were shouting things like "this is China, get out of China!"

RenKeNews' tweets seemed ideologically aligned with the CCP's official propaganda. Over the course of several months, he gained more than 26,000 followers, and his ads appeared on my timeline multiple times. But there was no way to prove any connection between him and the Chinese authorities. 

Well, as of February 2023, his bio has changed again. Now his account is labelled as "China state-affiliated media" because he is a "Correspondent of China's Xinhua News Agency in Europe". Xinhua is the People's Republic of China's official news agency


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Interesting. For several months RenKeNews spent money to amass nearly 47,000 followers, without mentioning in his bio any link to the Chinese government. Meanwhile, he bought his way into relevance and influence. Was he already working for Xinhua while he was running the ad campaigns? We don't know. And the fact we don't know is the issue. Whom can we trust if there is no transparency, and if relevance and exposure are for sale? 

What kind of "public square" is this? Anybody, including accounts working for corporations and dictatorial regimes, can throw amounts of money at social media to run "follower campaigns", gaining a higher status and visibility than most regular people who don't have the funds to do so. 

According to Twitter business: "The cost per follower on Twitter is not fixed - it depends on the size of the audience you're targeting, your bid, and other advertisers' demand for that audience. A bid of $2.50 - $3.50 is recommended based on historical averages, but you'll receive real-time bid guidance in your campaign setup." Most people, and even many small businesses, cannot afford to spend that kind of money. They're at a disadvantage.

We don't even know how many of RenKeNews' followers were gained through ads. This is not, and cannot be, how our "public square" functions. 

Personally, I am not against ads. Ads are part of business. When I was growing up, and the internet wasn't ubiquitous, ads were already ubiquitous on TV and newspapers, and I was fine with that. If I can't support content creators (e.g. on YouTube) with donations, I watch the ads. A lot of people disagree with me, and that's okay. 

The real issue is that on social media there is no separation between ads and user content. The advertiser is also a user. By gaining followers, the advertiser will become more relevant because of the engagement algorithms and the status that comes with thousands of followers. That creates a two-tier system. Moreover, those who advertised to gain followers are no longer labelled as advertisers, and will continue to enjoy their acquired status and relevance. This is different from traditional banner ads where products are advertised as such. It's also different if the money comes from sources like dictatorial regimes and individuals affiliated to them. 

What is the solution to this issue? Is it regulation? Is it users' boycotts of social media giants? I'd like to know what others think. As far as I'm concerned, I still use YouTube and other Google products (obviously), I use Amazon and WordPress. I use banks. PayPal. Etc. etc. I don't think most of us can realistically give up on everything. 

But I have ditched Twitter and moved to the Fediverse. That was a small step I decided to take. I couldn't be a part of Twitter anymore. And I think that the public needs to be more aware of the many ways in which manipulation is built into big social media's business model. 

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