Buying Influence: How China Manipulates Facebook and Twitter

The New York Times: Flood global social media with fake accounts used to advance an authoritarian agenda. Make them look real and grow their numbers of followers. Seek out online critics of the state -- and find out who they are and where they live. China's government has unleashed a global online campaign to burnish its image and undercut accusations of human rights abuses. Much of the effort takes place in the shadows, behind the guise of bot networks that generate automatic posts and hard-to-trace online personas. Now, a new set of documents reviewed by The New York Times reveals in stark detail how Chinese officials tap private businesses to generate content on demand, draw followers, track critics and provide other services for information campaigns. That operation increasingly plays out on international platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which the Chinese government blocks at home. The documents, which were part of a request for bids from contractors, offer a rare glimpse into how China's vast bureaucracy works to spread propaganda and to sculpt opinion on global social media. They were taken offline after The Times contacted the Chinese government about them. On May 21, a branch of the Shanghai police posted a notice online seeking bids from private contractors for what is known among Chinese officialdom as public opinion management. Officials have relied on tech contractors to help them keep up with domestic social media and actively shape public opinion via censorship and the dissemination of fake posts at home. Only recently have officials and the opinion management industry turned their attention beyond China. The Shanghai police are looking to create hundreds of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other major social media platforms. The police department emphasizes that the task is time sensitive, suggesting that it wants to be ready to unleash the accounts quickly to steer discussion. Bot-like networks of accounts such as those that the Shanghai police want to buy have driven an online surge in pro-China traffic over the past two years. Sometimes the social media posts from those networks bolster official government accounts with likes or reposts. Other times they attack social media users who are critical of government policies.

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