Only just surviving a straining trade war and now struggling with a raging global pandemic, the strife between the US and China is set to continue. The battlefield has relocated. Western social media platforms are now common fighting grounds. At the same time, the Chinese state propaganda arsenal changed with altered rhetoric. Now everything is about ‘facts and truth’. For journalists, it’s time to pay extra heed to social discussions by Chinese and US officials. A set of #OSINT tools can lend a hand.
Revised coronavirus death tolls in Wuhan were no reason to be disturbed, Chinese officials stress. There was ‘no cover-up’ they insist. One of many examples where China rectifies international commentators or all just a big misunderstanding? China now plays the card of a truth-loving custodian of facts on western social media. One of the best examples is Zhao Lijian (@zlj517), the deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department. His timeline on Twitter offers a plethora of insight into Chinese state PR.
With the typical face of Chinese propaganda evolving, it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the novelties through Zhao’s lense.
Firstly, we can see there is more traffic by Chinese officials like Zhao. Reporting by ProPublica sheds light on attacks by fake Twitter accounts. EuvsDisinfo also found more Chinese disinfo activity since the start of Covid-19 pandemic (I remain a bit skeptical to EuvsDisinfo as a source as their main focus, by decree, is Russian disinfo and only recently seemed to have broadened their view).
Chinese bot attacks became more common. A Chinese businessman, skeptical to the country’s Covid-19 response, was bombarded by bots (#OSINT Twitter thread by journalist Benjamin Strick).
To increase propaganda on Twitter, a strategic move?
China’s good-weather propaganda machine intensifies when economic success changes. A data analysis by an old colleague at the FT — now a China economics reporter there — spotted a statistical correlation between the amount of propaganda by central Chinese mouthpieces (volume on China Daily and Global Times articles) and economic success.
Now to Zhao’s presence. He found his new vocation in facts and truth. Buzzfeed News reported on Zhao’s zeal for boiling up ‘ twitterstorms’ before the pandemic. Zhao is the deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department. In March he tweeted: “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” and demanded “transparency” by the US.
Zhao’s account’s (@zlj517) following started to ramp up late last year. Covid-19 endowed him with many more followers and clout. Since November 29th, 2019 his following expanded from mere 183k followers, to 598k around four weeks ago, to 616k today.
What’s Zhao and other Chinese officials talking about? Are they talking about the same stuff?
Hashtags are a good measure of how aligned the various officials are on Twitter. I picked 10 of the most powerful Chinese ambassadors and the directors and deputy director of the foreign office information department. Then I pulled out all the hashtags and counted them and checked how they link to the various accounts. The complete output below.
Let's take a look at various ambassadors and how talking points overlap:
Now to the most important topics they discuss on Twitter.
If you are interested, the graphic is available here.
How it’s done:
Via open-source tools like Python and R, I scrape a bunch of tweets from the past months. You can do this too (even without coding proficiency). Since 2018, Tweetbeaver offers bulk account data downloads(capped at 15,000 accounts) and you can export users’ timelines (capped at 3,200 messages and retweets) as CSV files.
To see new tweets by Zhao’s is rare. He’s now more a retweeter (we can see, since Jan 9 there were mainly retweets). Although not automatically endorsements, retweets can help to reveal sentiment. His support for the WHO is indicative of China’s inclination to cozy up to such international organisations. Strong support for eastern European governments — such as the Slovak government, which the State Councilor Wang Yi said is “taking China as a diplomatic priority” — punctuate favorites.
Two’s company, three’s a crowd
Since January, attention by which accounts is @zlj517 seeking the most? We run a script and pull out usernames in Zhao’s activity. Who is he retweeting or mentioning the most?
I started to pick one where the association is not immediately obvious. For instance, we see strong support for Ajit Singh’s posts (@ajitxsingh), a self-proclaimed journalist (and graduate student). Bit of background here. Singh helped to produce an ‘investigative report’ for The Grayzone that was later word-for-word republished by People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. In another blog post (to raise money), Singh wondered why German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the re-elected German politician in a democracy — shouldn’t deserve the title of a ‘dictator’ (apparently he wrote one article for Truthout, an investigative outlet).
I am not here to challenge or dismiss Singh’s views (although he offers ample incentive). What does raise questions is how Zhao selectively used Singh’s efforts to benefit his cause. Singh’s comments offered a chance to amplify a positive Chinese narrative, so it’s no surprise Zhao finds this and other similar commentators appealing. A number of Singh’s Twitter comments, retweeted by @zlj517, below:
@ajitxsingh: .Chinese researchers have been forthright and transparent in their lab safety protocol, publishing, in May 2019, an overview of their training program for laboratory users in a US CDC publication on emerging infectious diseases
@ajitxsingh: Its indicative of how perversely racist America is that China sending aid and doctors around the world is seen as an evil plot while the US bombing countries and using sanctions to prevent them from obtaining food and medicine is seen as promoting human rights.
@ajitxsingh: Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese, state-led system is outperforming U.S. capitalism around the world and shattering the myth that “there is no alternative” a U.S.-led, neoliberal international order.
Why iPhone, Zhao?
One of the things Twitter’s API reveals is the device type. In the Zhao’s feed’s ‘statusSource’ column it’s either ‘Twitter Web App’, ‘Twitter Web Client’ or ‘Twitter for iPhone’. In the past, this kind of analysis revealed Trump’s switching phone brands (his feed gave him away).
Zhao uses an iPhone. But in June he proudly proclaimed Huawei’s victory over Apple’s phone, calling on others to support the Chinese company Huawei. Yet, it seems he himself is reluctant to put his money where his mouth is.
Also, what Zhao retweeted was a sister video to one that was found fake (he also retweeted that) — shared by Mothership.sg with the text ‘allegedly shot with a Huawei P30’. I leave it up to you whether this strengthens Zhao’s integrity.
As we have the timestamp for each Tweet we can roughly reconstruct Zhao’s Beijing schedule. For tweets going back to Jan, we can convert our local time into Beijing time.
When is he eating dinner? The odds are pretty good for around 5 pm when volume drops. After that, he rarely goes back to his browser. If that’s an analysis we would be aiming for we could dig deeper.
SleepingTime can give you similar insight and suggests he’s ‘is likely to sleep between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.’, matching roughly out calculations when we convert it into Beijing local time.
Other #OSINT tools to snoop around
Before I even get started I wonder what Zhao’s clout on Twitter is. In other words, how much power do his 280 characters hold? It’s a valid question for someone who has more than half a million followers and could misuse his influence by spreading rumors or disinformation. One of several tools is Twipu.com. When we throw @zlj517 at it we find Zhao’s leading in the ‘China’ and ‘politics’ categories.
When he does express himself in the form of a tweet, which is rare, he gets around 2k likes.
Zhao isn't new to Twitter and joined it in 2010. We might wonder how his profile changed over time, especially more recently as activity ramped up.
He moved up and around within the foreign ministry. One tool recommended by OSINT specialists is Spoonbill.io. Zhao’s account enjoyed no less than 15 bio status updates (most for them in 2019/2020). We find some personal details. In mid-October last year Zhao moved back to China, Beijing, from Islamabad, Pakistan. He was stationed there as deputy chief of mission. Until September 2018 he even revealed his WeChat name on Twitter:(Wechat: richard_zlj).
Also, we learn Twitter verified his account on February 7 of 2018. More interesting is how many times Zhao changed his bio tagline (as if there was some sort of internal dispute on what’s most appropriate to put on his bio).
On Feb 24 he erased ‘China & spread the voice of’ from ‘Try my best to tell the story of China & spread the voice of China’. Obviously, it’s unclear why. Does ‘spreading’ in times of Covid-19 seem too contentious?
Then, four days later he thought ‘Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’ is too long and replaced it with ‘spokesperson’. He also added the other two leading China diplomatic accounts (@MFA_China @SpokespersonCHN, together with the YouTube and Facebook link — the former opened on Feb 17 and the latter on Jan 23, 2020). More Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, all stress new eagerness to engage in Western social media discussions.
Reverse image search
Zhao’s pinned tweet allows us to snoop further. He urges international cooperation. But where’s the image from?
If we run the pics past Yandex image search. It’s the campus of Wuhan University. Its cherry road is enjoyed by visitors from across the country/globe. This doesn't marry well with the news that the Chinese government clamps down on academic research on the origins of the coronavirus, party by deleting pages from a University in Wuhan (The Guardian reported).
Nowadays, it’s relatively simple to ‘buy’ Twitter followers off the internet - I was assured by a pen-tester/white-hat hacker last year at a cybersecurity conference.
Buying global followers is cheaper than adding followers from a country like the US. As Chinese officials ramp up exposure and engagement in western social media it warrants asking: How much leveraged is there through phony accounts?
Buying fake followers seems logical for any government that wants to populate Twitter as quickly as possible. #Osint experts recommend three tools. One is SparkToro. It claims more than half of Zhao’s account is populated with fake followers. Compared with accounts with a similar following, @zlj517 has 62% more fake followers than the median.
We also get a neat breakdown. Nearly half of his follower accounts were set up in the past three months and nearly nine in ten have ‘suspiciously small number of followers’ themselves.
What we find here somewhat matches stuff @BenDoBrown already found, a wave of emergent Chinese bots.
#Osint experts name two other services: Twitteraudit and StatusPeople (the latter defunct as of February). Since they both fail(ed) to explain how they came up with numbers like 34% fakes (for TwitterAudit) such tools might offer limited potential. They can be a start into an investigation of a fake lobbying accounts or political campaigning profiles, but maybe shouldn't be the end of it.
Tweetbeaver is invaluable. It’s arguable one of the best tools for researching associations between accounts in question, I am told. For Zhao’s account, which has the unique identifier 141627220 (useful, should he ever change his username), we could be interested in whether a connection between @realDonaldTrum and Zhao’s account exists. You can test it here: Doesn't seem so.
More generally, Tweetbeaver is a nifty tool for bulk downloads. More to it later.
The connection between Zhao’s account and Hua Chunying (@SpokespersonCHN) is also interesting. Chunying assumed office as the Director of Foreign Ministry Information Department of the People’s Republic of China last July (Zhao is deputy). Since Twitter activity ramped up after Chunying assumed officer, it raises questions whether it’s one of her pet projects. We don't know. Chunying has also a number of fake followers. A whopping 58.5% among its 430k followers and a higher share than Zhao’s.
A strong connection between Zhao and Chunying is less surprising. Ok, they follow each other. They talk about similar stuff. What's interesting is that they have few followers in common, claims Tweetbeaver. One has 430k followers and the other 615k. But they overlap in less than 0.5 per cent of the time. It might be interesting to further investigate this (message me!).
Friends (those they follow)
Hua Chunying’s account follows a bit more than 100 other accounts, a good portion for us to analyze. Why bother? It might be indicative of who’s the foreign office Info Department’s poster child.
We can use Tweetbeaver’s ‘Download a user’s friends’ option for this. Output is a neat CSV file. A larger share, 39 accounts, are unverified accounts.
Most of Chunying’s friends are actually Chinese ambassador or embassy accounts — such as from the Chinese Ambassador to the Netherlands, the Chinese Ambassador/Permanent Representative to UN office in Geneva, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Suriname, the Chinese Embassy in South Africa, the Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ambassador of China to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Generalkonsul der VR China in Zürich und für das Fürstentum Liechtenstein etc etc.
The number of fake followers for each account below.
Common friends and foes
It could also be interesting to see whether Zhao has any common friends with for instant, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-General of the WHO (@DrTedros). Zhao retweeted Tedros’s comments wildly in the past months. As Zhao’s pledging cooperation, common friends might be indicative of whether they actually have something in common.
When we run both accounts on Tweetbeaver’s CommonFriends feature, we get only 56 friends. With Zhao befriending 170k and Tedros nearly, 1k accounts. An overlap of 56 is ridiculously small.
With growing influence by Chinese officials on Twitter, another thing we might want to check on is how aligned Chinese ambassadors are in key western jurisdictions.
For this we use Followerwonk and compare three accounts by the ambassador to India (@china_amb_india), Cui Tiankai (@AmbCuiTiankai) ambassador to the US, and Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) ambassador to the UK.
Two last tools in combination are worth mentioning. Trendsmap can help to find disinformation hashtags. I search for ‘China’ under topic-search. A bunch of popular hashtags pop up. The perhaps inflammatory hashtag #chinaliedandpeopledied catches my eye.
If you are interested in where they started a tool called FirstTweet can help. It allows searching for tweets that first mentioned it (I was told that for verification reasons it’s worth mentioning that upload time does not equal creation date — thx @bayer_julia).
For #Chinaliedandpeopledied we see it emerged on February 5. We can try this for anti-US hashtags used in an inflammatory Covid-19 context (one is #AntiAmerican, but we beware that this surfaces tweets from long before Covid-19, in this case 2009 acc. to irumble.com/firsttweet. It might the worth to heed the timeframe when selecting hashtags).
What’s the bottom line here? Lots of little bits of potential important details reveal how Chinese officials ramp up activity on Twitter. Part 2 is in planning. So stay tuned.
PS: If you have any additional ideas or new exclusive insight into the world of disinformation, contact me via Medium