Tuesday 11 May 2021 12.01EST/05.01BST

 New study finds coordinated amplification network promoting tweets by China’s diplomats in the UK.

  • Oxford researchers identify a coordinated inauthentic network amplifying People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) diplomats based in the UK.
  • Coordinated network consists of 62 inauthentic accounts dedicated to promoting Twitter content by the PRC ambassador and the PRC embassy in London.
  • Between June 2020 and January 2021, coordinated network accounts for more than four in ten retweets of the PRC ambassador to the UK.
  • Twitter responds to Oxford investigation by suspending 29 still active accounts for platform manipulation.

A new study by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford uncovers a coordinated amplification network promoting the Twitter accounts of PRC diplomats based in the United Kingdom. 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 the first public disclosure of a coordinated amplification network specifically dedicated to PRC diplomats.

In their working paper, ‘China’s Inauthentic UK Twitter Diplomacy: A Coordinated Network Amplifying PRC Diplomats’, 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 Oxford academics analyze a coordinated network dedicated to amplifying PRC diplomats stationed in the United Kingdom.

The Oxford researchers examine all tweets, retweets and replies to tweets by the ambassador to the UK at the time of analysis, Liu Xiaoming, and the official account of the Chinese Embassy in London between 9 June 2020 and 31 January 2021. Using data science methods, network analysis and computational linguistics, the Oxford researchers were able to show that multiple accounts were used in a coordinated effort to promote the PRC’s diplomats on Twitter. The coordinated inauthentic network was detected and analysed as part of a forensic investigation with the Associated Press’ (AP) Global Investigations Team.

Marcel Schliebs, doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said: “In our investigation, we identify 62 accounts that show strong signs of coordination. These accounts amplify the messages from UK-based PRC diplomats at a high rate, often hundreds or thousands of times within just a few months.”

Key findings

  • Oxford researchers uncover a coordinated network of 62 accounts amplifying the PRC’s diplomats to the UK
  • Of the 62 suspicious accounts, 31 were suspended before 1st March 2021, two were deleted by the user, another 29 remained active
  • Oxford researchers alerted Twitter to suspected inauthentic accounts, who responded by suspending the remaining 29 accounts for platform manipulation

The forensic investigation of the coordinated network by the researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute and the Associated Press revealed several coordination patterns in the timing of the accounts and language used.

  • Nearly one third of the accounts were created within a few minutes of each other on five days in April and August 2020
  • Many accounts sit dormant for extended periods and were activated together at chosen moments.
  • Accounts in the network frequently amplify PRC diplomats within sixty seconds of a message from another account in the network.
  • Many accounts in the network used overlapping language patterns that was distinct from the language used by other users engaging with PRC diplomats

Explains Schliebs, “Our assessment that accounts in the network coordinated with each other is based on a variety of features including account creation, activity timing, and language patterns. Viewed together, these coordination traces were so strong and distinct from a benchmark of other users engaging with PRC diplomats that they cannot be explained by chance. The fact that Twitter has suspended all remaining accounts for platform manipulation in reaction to our investigation further supports this conclusion.”

The Oxford researchers measured the overall impact of the coordinated amplification campaign.

  • 44% of retweets and 20% of replies to the PRC ambassador to the UK between June 2020 and January 2021 were authored by accounts from the coordinated network.
  • During some peak weeks, between 50 and 75% of weekly Twitter engagement with the PRC ambassador and the PRC embassy in London was driven by the inauthentic network.
  • The accounts seemed to generate little additional involvement from genuine users, but may have contributed to the amplification of PRC diplomat content by manipulating platform algorithms.

Adds Hannah Bailey, co-author of the paper and doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, “In our UK case study, we find that nearly half of retweet engagement with UK-based PRC diplomat accounts can be identified as inauthentic coordinated activity. PRC actors therefore appear to be inflating the prominence of certain tweets to benefit the reputation of the ambassador, the embassy and ultimately the PRC.”

The Oxford researchers also carried out a broader study examining global online public diplomacy campaigns carried out by PRC diplomats.  The report ‘China’s Public Diplomacy Operations; Understanding engagement and inauthentic amplification of Chinese diplomats on Facebook and Twitter’ highlights how the PRC uses Twitter and Facebook to strategically amplify the PRC’s narratives.

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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 Inauthentic UK Twitter Diplomacy: A Coordinated Network Amplifying PRC Diplomats .  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.