China’s Public Diplomacy Operations: Understanding Engagement and Inauthentic Amplification of PRC Diplomats on Facebook and Twitter

11 May 2021

China's Public Diplomacy

As part of the strategy to “tell China’s story well”, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has significantly expanded its public diplomacy efforts. Our study “China’s Public Diplomacy Operations” 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 is based on a seven month investigation by the Programme on Democracy and Technology, and represents a global audit of social media activity by PRC diplomats and state-backed media outlets.

Examining every tweet and Facebook post produced by PRC diplomats and 10 of the largest state-controlled media outlets between June 2020 and February 2021, we find four main findings: 

  1. 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 millions of likes, retweets, and comments. Numbers were similarly high for Facebook. 
  2. Despite these high activity and engagement numbers, only one in eight (14%) PRC diplomat Twitter accounts is clearly labelled as a government-affiliated account.  
  3. On Twitter, a considerable share of the engagement with PRC accounts on Twitter come from user accounts that the company eventually suspends for platform violations. We find more than one in ten of the retweets of PRC diplomats between June 2020 and January 2021 were from accounts that were later suspended by Twitter. Many of these accounts were active for months before being disabled.   
  4. The social media accounts of PRC diplomats and state-backed media agencies receive lots of engagement from other users, but a substantial proportion of this engagement is generated by rapid-fire “super-spreader” accounts. These user accounts rapidly engage with PRC content with just seconds between retweets. We find that nearly half of all PRC account retweets originate from the top 1% of the super-spreaders.  

Read the “China’s Public Diplomacy Operations” Report here.

Find the R and Python code used to conduct the analysis and replication materials here.

Alongside this report, we also publish 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 we 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. 

Read the case study report “China’s Inauthentic UK Twitter Diplomacy – A Coordinated Network Amplifying PRC Diplomats” here.  

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