Twitter has disrupted three China-based operations that were covertly trying to influence American politics in the months leading up the midterm elections by amplifying politically polarizing topics, according to a trove of data released by the social media giant to researchers and The Washington Post.
Twitter also took down three networks that were based in Iran but often claimed to be based in the United States or Israel, the data shows. At least one of the accounts involved in the Iranian efforts, 10Votes81, endorsed candidates even in local races. An account named 10Votes and using the same logo as an avatar was also active on YouTube, TikTok and especially Reddit, said Renée DiResta of Stanford’s Election Integrity Partnership, one of the data’s recipients.
Twitter said in its disclosure to researchers that it was not attributing the activity to any specific governments. Twitter did not respond to a request for further comment. China’s Embassy in Washington did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Twitter’s takedown of the networks, which mostly operated between April and October, came during a stormy period for the social media giant as it prepared to be sold to billionaire Elon Musk and faced ongoing scrutiny over how it polices misinformation ahead of next week’s midterms, when political control of Congress is up for grabs.
Twitter and other tech platforms have struggled particularly to curb the spread of false claims of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election and to mitigate suggestions of fraud in the upcoming contests.
The disclosure by Twitter adds to what is known about China-based efforts to influence American audiences by mimicking the strategies Russia-based operatives used to stoke cultural and political tensions during the 2016 election. In September, Meta announced it had disrupted a China-based operation seeking to influence U.S. politics. The U.S. government also has issued warnings about Chinese influence efforts, as have a spate of reports from cybersecurity firms including Google’s Mandiant, Recorded Future and Alethea Group.
Graham Brookie, head of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, which also received the data, said the tweets issued by the Chinese networks largely amplified ideas that originated with members of America’s ideological extremes.
“This is equal opportunity hyper-partisanship, a tactic that’s been more embraced by Russia,” said Brookie, who added that the campaign was more assertive than past Chinese efforts. “It’s the same theory of the case: A weakened adversary is one that allows you to shape geopolitics more.”
One network that Twitter removed, the data showed, included 22 user accounts that tweeted more than 250,000 times. Between April and early October, their posts were generally pro-Trump and conspiratorial, particularly about the pandemic and coronavirus vaccines.
Alethea, another recipient of the data, concluded that Chinese-linked accounts on Twitter and elsewhere were pursuing divisiveness but plugging right-wing issues more than left, sometimes with nods to conspiracy theories. In the newly suspended batch, one account tweeted in May that former president Barack Obama was a “lizard person who is a member of the Illuminati,” according to copy of the tweet archived by the Internet Archive.
Twitter said that while many of the network’s accounts purported to be located in the United States, the company discovered technical signals that indicated many were based in China. Twitter removed the accounts because they violated the company’s rules against platform manipulation and spam, the company said.
While the network was small, some of its users attracted high levels of engagement. One of those accounts, which went by the name Ultra MAGA BELLA Hot Babe, author of the Obama tweet, attracted 26,000 followers, more than 400,000 likes and more than 180,000 retweets before it was taken down.
In May, Ultra MAGA BELLA Hot Babe tweeted a meme with a photo of someone holding paper near a purported ballot drop box with the caption “MULE TAKING PICS! PROOF OF CRIME REQUIRED TO GET PAID BY THE DNC.” In June, the account tweeted a comment implying that children from the transgender community are simply impressionable and being abused by their parents, according to archived copies.
Ultra MAGA BELLA Hot Babe was also frequent participant in “Trump trains” — where popular right-wing users urge their audience to follow other pro-Trump Twitter users.
Another account in that network, “Salome Cliff,” took a more liberal perspective, saying Donald Trump persecuted minorities and praised Joe Biden as “poised, calm and collected.” That account, the second-most popular account in the China-linked network, after Bella, had about 7,000 followers but far less engagement, earning less than 1 percent of Bella’s total.
Stanford’s DiResta said the 10Votes account acted as a moderator on Reddit’s discussion board Political_Revolution, which has more than 100,000 subscribers. A recent 10Votes post quoting Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman drew more than 800 upvotes in the past 12 days. (On Twitter, 10Votes said its name derived from Bernie Sanders’s first margin of victory when he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vt.)
Reddit said it had locked the 10Votes account last week and coordinated influence campaigns are prohibited.
Another China-based account removed by Twitter mixed anti-Russia posts with what appeared from the text to be politically tinged pro-Trump pornography.
An Iran-based network was also successful in getting nearly 25,000 followers and millions of likes on its tweets, which interspersed liberal, anti-Trump messaging with harsh anti-Israel slogans. It, too, appears to have taken advantage of being included on lists of liberal Twitter users who request users to follow back fellow “resisters.” The Iran-based network also included at least one purportedly conservative user, but DiResta said they were primarily “left-leaning personas,” including the one posing as an advocacy group, 10Votes.
She said 10Votes making down-ballot endorsements was new territory for foreign influence efforts.
Two other China-based accounts didn’t get nearly as much engagement on their tweets, the Twitter data shows. In one network, two accounts posed as Florida liberals, posting about gun control and Marco Rubio; none of their tweets got more than 100 likes or retweets.
Twitter also took down a network that included more than 1,900 accounts that often posted overtly pro-China narratives in both English and Chinese. Many of this network’s tweets directly echoed the Chinese government’s rhetoric, particularly in condemning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)’s visit to Taiwan this year.
“It’s an extension of the more assertive tone that you heard from President Xi at the party Congress a couple weeks ago,” Brookie said. “That tone trickles down to Chinese and Chinese-adjacent actors on social media.”
During the early months of the war in Ukraine, China became a potent outlet for Kremlin disinformation, portraying Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors and sharing false claims about neo-Nazi control of the Ukrainian government, according to researchers. Chinese channels touted the false claim that the United States runs bioweapons labs in Ukraine and suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was being manipulated by U.S. billionaire George Soros.
In September, Meta announced it had taken action against a China-based network that included at least 81 Facebook accounts and two accounts on Instagram that were seeking to influence U.S. politics ahead of the 2022 midterm.
The users posed as Americans to post opinions about issues such as abortion, gun control and high-profile politicians such as Biden and Rubio (R-Fla.), who faces voters next week. The network didn’t appear to gain much traction or user engagement and often posted content during working hours in China rather than at times when their target audience in the United States would be awake, according to the company.