, 16 tweets, 6 min read Read on Twitter
My @ASPI_ICPC colleagues @tomatospy @JakeWallis_ASPI and I have spent the last week digging into the data released by Twitter in connection to a state-backed information operation targeting the Hong Kong protests. Here's what we found: THREAD
As initially suspected, the campaign targeting #HongKongProtesters appears to have been hastily assembled with a mix of a small number of purpose-made accounts and a much larger network of repurposed marketing and spam accounts.
In this account, for example, we can clearly see a change of behaviour from 2018 its initial purpose, which seems to have been mostly spamming in English, to a much lower volume of tweets directed at the #HKprotests in 2019.
The changeover is also notable in a switch to tweeting with Twitter Web Client (use of this was fairly consistent across the accounts involved in apparent info ops) and change in the times of tweets.
The network also included a LOT of former porn spam accounts, which made for an interesting week in the office.
We found clear evidence of previous selling and re-selling of accounts included in the dataset. Over 630 tweets within the dataset contain phrases like ‘test new owner’, ‘test’, ‘new own’, etc. Here's one offering itself for auction in Indonesian in 2016.
Use of these kinds of accounts suggests that the operators behind the information operation did not have time to establish the kinds of credible digital assets used in the Russian campaign targeting the US 2016 elections.
This supports our initial conclusion that this was a hastily constructed response to the unanticipated power, persistence and resolve of the #HongKongProtesters, rather than a long-planned campaign.
However, one of the most interesting findings from the dataset was that some of the same accounts have been active in entirely separate information operations targeting opponents of the Chinese government BEFORE the #HongKong protests began.
Trawling through the data, we found at least four earlier information operations directed at opponents of the Chinese government, with the earliest beginning in 2017. We believe the goal of these campaigns is to influence the opinions of Chinese people living outside China.
The largest and most sustained of these campaigns was directed against Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok. Mr Guo has had a colourful history, and the Chinese government is extremely keen to see him return to China. politico.com/story/2019/06/…
Another target in the dataset is Gui Minhai, a bookseller from Hong Kong who has been repeatedly targeted by Chinese authorities, including being 'snatched' off a train whilst trying to make it to the Swedish embassy. theguardian.com/world/2018/feb…
A small campaign also targeted human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was arrested whilst taking his son to school. Yu had posted public criticism of the Chinese government just hours before. bbc.com/news/world-asi…
Even veterans of the Chinese army were targeted, after 10 people were arrested for protesting to demand their unpaid retirement benefits. reuters.com/article/us-chi…
We believe the evidence in the dataset is likely to be only a small fragment of potentially a much larger pattern of behaviour that has yet to be captured.
You can read our full report here: aspi.org.au/report/tweetin…
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