While lawmakers in both parties in Washington were busy litigating the Russiagate conspiracy, China was operating one of Twitter’s largest propaganda bot networks, according to a new report by the beleaguered social media company.
Twitter, which has been under fire from President Trump for “fact checking” the president’s tweets, has also received renewed scrutiny for the massive number of fake and bot accounts, sometimes numbering in the millions, that inflate the follower counts of public figures.
Seemingly in response to this pressure, Twitter’s safety team released a statement this Thursday containing information on their efforts to dismantle bot armies belonging to China, Russia, and Turkey, all three of which have been known to meddle in American politics.
The kicker: of the three, Russia’s bot network was by far the smallest.
Twitter identified and banned 1,152 accounts associated with Current Policy, a website that focuses on signal-boosting Russian state propaganda. This was dwarfed by the 7,340 bots found as part of a network intended to promote Turkey’s ruling AK Parti and its leader, Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But both countries’ social media propaganda efforts were tiny compared to the Chinese Communist Party’s Twitter infrastructure. Twitter had taken down almost 200,000 bots and fake accounts being used to advance the Chinese government’s line on issues like Hong Kong. According to Twitter’s report, this enormous bot army consisted of some 23,750 accounts as part of a “highly engaged core network” involved in content production, with an auxiliary network of 150,000 bots used to amplify this content.
While it’s important to keep in mind that these dismantled networks may represent only a portion of their host countries’ social media propaganda efforts, the numbers that we have seen serve to illustrate the serious strategic blunder that American politicians and intelligence agency leaders made by failing to scrutinize Chinese operations during the course of Russiagate.
A particularly notable moment during Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling was his team’s announcement of charges against 13 members of a “troll farm,” the so-called “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), based out of St. Petersburg. The operation was indeed vast — supposedly numbering over 1,000 employees at one point — and yet only a few thousand IRA-linked accounts have ever been identified.
Naturally, this raises the question: how much in manpower and resources has China invested into its own disinformation campaigns? And where now is the anger that lawmakers had been so keen to direct at Russia?