New study finds Chinese actors using social media networks to influence foreign public opinion.

  • Analysis shows People’s Republic of China (PRC) diplomats and state media outlets highly active on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Only 14% of PRC diplomat accounts on Twitter are labelled by the platform.
  • More than 10% of diplomat retweets are from accounts that have since been suspended for violating Twitter’s rules prohibiting platform manipulation.
  • Nearly half of all PRC diplomat retweets are from the 1% of most active amplifiers.

A new study by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford shows how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is targeting global social media platforms as part of its public diplomacy efforts to shape public opinion in foreign countries. The report published by the Oxford researchers is based on a seven-month investigation by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Associated Press and represents a global audit of social media activity by PRC diplomats and state-backed media outlets.

In their working paper, ‘China’s Public Diplomacy Operations’ co-authored by lead researcher Marcel Schliebs, Oxford Internet Institute, doctoral candidate Hannah Bailey, Associate Professor Jonathan Bright and Professor Philip N. Howard, Oxford Internet Institute, the academics examine how PRC diplomats and state-backed media outlets are using Twitter and Facebook to strategically amplify the PRC’s messages.

In order to understand the structure and function of the PRC’s public diplomacy operations, the Oxford researchers examined every tweet and Facebook post produced by PRC diplomats and 10 of the largest state-controlled media outlets between June 2020 and February 2021. The data collection and analysis were carried out together with the Associated Press’ Global Investigations Team.

Marcel Schliebs, doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said: “We find that the PRC is increasingly seeking to use its diplomats to amplify the outward-facing propaganda dissemination of state-backed media outlets. Our analysis shows PRC diplomats are represented in at least 126 countries with active Twitter or Facebook accounts.”

Key findings

  • PRC diplomats and state-backed media outlets are highly active on Twitter, with 189 diplomatic accounts tweeting 201,382 times between 9 June 2020 and 23 February 2021, receiving nearly 7 million likes, 1.3 million retweets, and commented on one million times.
  • Researchers found 176 Twitter and Facebook accounts representing PRC state-controlled media outlets in English and other languages. These accounts posted over 700,000 times, with posts receiving 355 million likes, over 27 million comments and re-shares.

While Twitter and Facebook have both introduced official account labelling in an attempt to enhance transparency and accountability, the Oxford researchers found that levels of labelling were often low and applied inconsistently. Their findings show how the majority of Twitter accounts are unlabelled, including many blue-checkmark verified accounts.

  • Researchers find only one in eight (14%) PRC diplomat Twitter account is clearly labelled as a government account.
  • On Facebook, 66% of English state-media accounts are labelled and 22% of PRC state media that publish in other languages.

The global analysis by the Oxford team also examines patterns in engagement with PRC diplomat content. Hannah Bailey, co-author of the paper and doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said “The accounts of PRC diplomats and state-backed media agencies receive lots of retweets and comments from social media users, but a substantial proportion of this engagement is generated by just a small portion of highly active accounts.”

  • Researchers find nearly half of all PRC account retweets originate from the top 1% most active accounts.
  • These highly active accounts engage with PRC diplomats at a very high rate, often retweeting them thousands of times within just a few months

Analysing all retweets of PRC diplomats between June 2020 and January 2021, the Oxford researchers and the Associated Press found that a large share of the engagement diplomats received on Twitter came from subsequently suspended accounts. “Revisiting every account that had retweeted a PRC diplomat between June and January, we found that more than one in ten retweets diplomats received came from accounts which were later suspended for violating Twitter’s rules, which prohibit platform manipulation”, says Bailey.

  • 10% of the retweets that PRC diplomats received between June 2020 and January 2021 came from accounts which were later suspended by Twitter
  • For some diplomatic accounts, more than half of retweet engagement came from accounts which were subsequently banned from the platform for violating its rules.

Adds Professor Philip N. Howard, Senior Author of the study, “By uncovering the scale and reach of the PRC’s public diplomacy campaign, we can better understand how policy makers and social media firms should react to an increasingly assertive PRC propaganda strategy.”

The Oxford researchers have also produced a detailed UK case study ‘China’s Inauthentic UK Twitter Diplomacy: A Coordinated Network Amplifying PRC Diplomats’. The case study discloses a coordinated inauthentic network amplifying UK-based PRC diplomats that the Oxford researchers were able to uncover in collaboration with the Associated Press. It includes 62 accounts dedicated to promoting the content by PRC diplomats stationed in London. Between June 2020 and January 2021, the network amplified tweets by diplomats more than 25,000 times, accounting for nearly half of all retweets of the PRC ambassador to the UK.

For more information call 01865 287220 or email press@oii.ox.ac.uk

Notes for editors

The study is based on the results of a seven-month investigation by the OII and the Associated Press (AP) Global Investigations Team between June 2020 and February 2021.  Read the full study  ‘China’s Public Diplomacy Operations’ .  The research was peer reviewed by five independent recognised external experts in the field.  The study has received ethical review. Curec number – SSH_OII_CIA_20_041.   The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Economic and Social Research Council (UKRI Grant Number 2260175), Ford Foundation, and Luminate.  Find out more about the work of the Programme for Democracy and Technology.

About the Oxford Internet Institute

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/