Jun 3, 2022 - World

Report: China-linked Twitter harassment targets female Asian journalists outside China

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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A network of Twitter accounts previously linked to the Chinese government is targeting female journalists of Chinese heritage who work for western news outlets in a campaign of online harassment, according to a new report.

Why it matters: The campaign appears to be part of the Chinese government's efforts to silence criticism of Beijing abroad through coercion, intimidation, and retaliation.

  • In the past few years, and with growing assertiveness since 2019, the Chinese government has taken to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other western social media platforms that are banned in China to promote state propaganda and to engage in increasingly sophisticated disinformation and harassment campaigns.

What's happening: In recent weeks, the Twitter accounts of the New Yorker's Jiayang Fan, the Economist's Alice Su, the New York Times' Muyi Xiao, and other journalists and China analysts — mostly female, mostly of ethnic Chinese heritage and largely based outside of China — have been flooded with thousands of tweets criticizing them as traitors and accusing them of "smearing" China.

  • The harassment campaign is connected to the Chinese state-linked "Spamouflage" network, according to analysis performed by researchers Danielle Cave and Albert Zhang at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and reviewed by Axios.
  • ASPI is an independent non-partisan think tank in Australia that has published numerous high-profile reports about China that have attracted the ire of the Chinese government.
  • The network popularly known as Spamouflage was first identified in 2019. Twitter has previously attributed the Spamouflage network to Chinese state-linked actors. Spamouflage-linked activity has occurred on a range of topics including the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and COVID. Twitter has previously shared relevant data about Chinese state-backed campaigns with ASPI.
  • A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to Axios that the activity identified in ASPI's report was part of the "Spamouflage" network, and that Twitter had suspended more than 400 linked accounts for violation of platform policies. The spokesperson said the investigation was ongoing.

What they're saying: "To accuse the Chinese government of using Twitter accounts to target dissidents is totally groundless and malicious speculation," Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Axios in a statement.

  • "The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) you mentioned has been making a living by churning out all kinds of disinformation about China. It has long been notorious in China and a laughing stock in the international community."

Details: Many posts include generic and similar-sounding criticism, such as that the journalists are "reverse racist" or they are a "dog" for "betraying China." But other posts, particularly those targeting Fan in the hashtag #TraitorJiayangFan, were tailored to very personal details in the journalists' lives, resulting in what ASPI described as "psychological abuse."

  • The accounts display numerous characteristics of a bot network. Many have generic names with handles that often include a long string of numbers. Most accounts use photos of real women taken from other websites, or AI-generated images of women and children, the researchers found.
  • Hundreds of recently created accounts were dedicated exclusively to tweeting attacks of one or more of the women, while others had previously posted other Chinese state propaganda, including denial of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID.
  • ASPI says it believes the network is state backed because of other indicators, as well, including "posting content denying human rights abuses in Xinjiang, amplifying hashtags that ASPI has assessed to be other iterations of Spamouflage, using profile images similar to previous Spamouflage-linked accounts and other patterns of life."

By the numbers: The researchers identified at least 367 inauthentic accounts that have used the hashtag #TraitorJiayangFan since April 19.

  • In one 24-hour period on May 30, more than 100 accounts in the network posted more than 500 tweets directed at Xiao, the New York Times visual journalist. Some of these accounts were removed after she reported them, Xiao wrote in a May 31 tweet.
  • Most of the tweets were posted during business hours in China's time zone, with activity dropping off on recent holidays in China, according to ASPI's analysis.

"This activity is escalating," the ASPI researchers write. Recent evidence points to "an actor that is broadening its scope and targets, constantly adding to its information toolkit and evolving far more quickly than just a year, or two, ago."

  • A Twitter spokesperson told Axios they've made progress in keeping journalists safe on the platform but "recognize the work we still need to do in order to minimize the disproportionate levels of abuse that women and underrepresented communities face online."
  • The U.S. State Department declined to comment.

The big picture: In recent years, the Chinese government has engaged in increasingly aggressive forms of transnational repression, meaning the extension of authoritarian government power beyond its borders.

  • The ASPI report refers to the Twitter campaign against journalists as an example of "digital transnational repression."
  • Chinese authorities have successfully pressured governments from Thailand to Tajikistan to Egypt to forcibly repatriate Uyghurs who have fled oppression in Xinjiang.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice has recently issued several indictments against Chinese security officials for schemes to harass U.S.-based dissidents.

Disclosure: Bethany is an unpaid member of ASPI's Xinjiang Data Project advisory council, a group of experts that provides feedback to ASPI on that project. The report in this article is not part of that project and Bethany played no role in conceptualizing or drafting it.

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