10th June 2021
Recent research by ISD, Graphika and The Oxford Internet Institute has highlighted a series of complex pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations premised on an ostensible army of Twitter accounts. Such networks have promoted a variety of prominent CCP narratives which cast both domestic and foreign CCP policy in a highly favourable light.
A new investigation by ISD and the German news outlet Die Welt now suggests a possible shift – perhaps even an evolution – in network tactics, one involving real, genuine human Twitter influencers acting as advocates for pro-CCP narratives.
In the past year, the international community has criticised Chinese government actions relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, interventions in Hong Kong democracy protests, and the repression of Uyghurs in the north-western region of Xinjiang.
However, research is increasingly demonstrating that Western online influencers are helping the CCP to defend its reputation online. Such influencer accounts are amplified by likely coordinated networks of thousands of Twitter accounts, promoted by prominent CCP officials and, in some instances, senior corporate executives from major Chinese companies such as Huawei.
One such influencer account is that of “Navina Heyden” (@NavinaHeyden), who purports to be a 22-year-old German national who lives in Kiel. First appearing on Twitter in March 2020, “Heyden” has since gained an impressive 26.8k followers and regularly tweets about Chinese culture and politics.
With the help of retweets from prominent figures such as China’s Ambassador to Austria, Li Xiaosi; Consul General of China to Karachi, Li Bijian; Huawei’s president of strategy marketing for western Europe, Mike Bai; and the official accounts of Huawei Europe, tweets from “Heyden” have achieved seemingly ‘viral’ levels of engagement, garnering as many as 13,984 retweets and 120,070 likes.
However, a combination of social media data analytics and open-source intelligence (OSINT) research conducted by ISD and partners suggests this seemingly organic engagement may be more than it seems.
Growth in Followership
“Heyden”’s account was created a little over a year ago, on 27 March 2020. Since then, it has been active in defending the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; criticising the Hong Kong protests; and issuing denouncements of “lies and fabrications” related to media allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
In only 14 months of activity, “Heyden”’s account has managed to gain 26.8k followers, sometimes characterised by sudden jumps in followership over very short periods.
Using the open-source social media analytics tool Social Blade, analysts identified three spikes in the growth of “Heyden”’s followers on Twitter. The account gained 7,165 new followers in the week from 11 to 17 August 2020; 1,004 from 1 to 7 December 2020; and 1,354 from 27 April to 3 May 2021.
These significant spikes in follower count between 15 August and 17 August 2020 coincided with the upload of two videos, in which she explains why she writes about China as a German citizen.
To date, the first of “Heyden”’s two videos has amassed 207.6K views, 878 retweets and 5K likes, while the second one has received 21.9K views, 117 retweets and 981 likes. These high figures are a result of the videos being shared by a number of highly popular accounts. For example, on 15 August 2020, eight official accounts from senior figures at Huawei Europe shared both of the videos within just a few seconds of one another:
➜ Within the same minute at 9:20am (BST), Mike Bai, President of Strategy Marketing, Western Europe, Huawei Technologies (@Mike_IMC); the official Twitter account of Huawei Europe (@Huawei_Europe); Wells Li, President of Human Resource, Western Europe, Huawei Technologies (@HRWEU); and Kevin Liu, President of Public Affairs and Communications Department, Western Europe, Huawei Technologies (@PacdWeu) retweeted both of the videos.
➜ Five hours later and also within the space of a minute, Shirley Wang, Chief Financial Officer at Huawei Western Europe (@Shirley_IMC); Ye Xiaowen, CFO Western Europe Huawei Technologies (@CFOWEU); Na Ran, Western European Region, Huawei Technologies (@Na_IMC); and Frank Shen, Western Europe, Huawei Technologies (@Frank_IMC); also retweeted the both of the videos.
This was not the first time that “Heyden”’s posts on Twitter had been shared by influential Chinese figures.
Analysts searched for mentions of “@NavinaHeyden” on the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, which is an open-source tool that enables disinformation researchers to monitor narratives and topics promoted by Russian, Chinese and Iranian government officials and state-funded media. This search yielded over 90 results, which included retweets and comments by Chinese government officials in response to “Heyden”’s content.
Prominent accounts who have retweeted “Heyden” include the Consul General of China to Karachi in Pakistan; China’s ambassador to Austria; Consul General of Calcutta in India; Consul General in Durban, South Africa; Consul at the Chinese Embassy in Lebanon; and the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney.
Coordinated Account Creation
An analysis of the creation date of “Heyden”’s followers revealed that many of the accounts had been created in batches at specific times and in short sequence.
Spikes in the creation of accounts occurred in July 2020 (1,481 accounts), August 2020 (1,409) and April 2021 (1,213). The spikes are particularly visible in August, when over 1,000 accounts were created during just the first two weeks of August.
An analysis of the content shared by “Heyden”’s followers revealed that many of their tweets were posted as replies in which the same URL or text was shared hundreds of times in a seemingly coordinated manner. This behaviour aligned with the results of a previous ISD report which had identified a pro-CCP network on Twitter that rebutted criticism against China and amplified pro-CCP narratives through replying to prominent accounts.
Analysts looked at the distribution of “Heyden”’s followers on the basis of the percentage of replies out of the total number of tweets they sent between 1 January and 30 April 2021. To contextualise the results, all of the posts made during the same timeframe by a random sample of Twitter accounts were collected. The two distributions were then compared.
On average, replies accounted for 52% of the activity of “Heyden”’s followers. This compared to 33% in the random sample. However, not all of “Heyden”’s followers appeared to engage in replies to the same extent, suggesting that this behaviour is only common to a part of her followership.
Out of the 3,940,187 tweets which were shared by “Heyden”’s followers, 46% (1,827,323) were replies. 25% of “Heyden”’s followers were found to engage in replies between 90% – 100% of the cases, and 47% engaged in replies in 60% or more of their activities. By comparison, only 6% of the random sample engaged in replies more than 90% of the time and only 23% of the random sample engaged in replies in 60% or more of their activities.
Content of replies
Analysts then looked at the links shared exclusively as replies. All of the links shared by the follower network between 1 January 2021 and 30 April 2021 were analysed to determine how many unique accounts shared each link. The most-shared link in the dataset was a tweet from the Chinese journalist Shen Shiwei, featuring a video allegedly showing the spread of contaminated water from the Fukushima power plant in Japan. This tweet was shared over 2,100 times by a total of three accounts, however, just one of them was responsible for over 2,000 shares of the same link in the period between 12 and 17 April 2021.
The link was shared with as little as five seconds in between consecutive replies with the message “Save the ocean!Save the marine life! Save the future of mankind! Western media cannot pretend to be blind, nor can Western governments implement double standards! This is not ordinary sewage! This is nuclear sewage!”. The replies targeted mostly articles from Western media organisations, for example, 254 replies were sent to @Reuters, 91 to @CNBC, 74 to @NBCNews, and 68 to @MSNBC.
The video was shared in the aftermath of Japan’s announcement that it will begin work to release more than 1 million tonnes of treated radioactive water from Fukushima’s power plant into the sea in 2023. However, the video featured in the tweet appeared to be a cropped version of a 2012 Geomar simulation of the long-term dispersal of cesium-137 released into the Pacific Ocean following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Among the top ten most shared links in the dataset, three of them were videos from Nathan Rich, an American expat who has often shared conspiracy theories and promoted CCP narratives. His videos, titled ‘New York Times Lies Exposed!’, ‘New York Times Coronavirus Propaganda’, and ‘New York Times Hong Kong Propaganda’ were shared over 700 times, the first link by three unique users, and the last two by the same single user.
Another pair of links in the datasets referred to a video uploaded to YouTube and Periscope called 2020 vision. The YouTube version was shared 785 times by one unique user and the Periscope version 643 times also by the same user. The video is an almost two hour-long documentary starting with the claim that the 9/11 terrorist attack was staged and arguing that all of the events following the 9/11 attacks to the COVID-19 pandemic were part of a plan called “The Project for the New American Century”.
Besides these single accounts spreading the same links multiple times, other links were also shared a high number of times as replies by different accounts. For example, an article on the Gray Zone against Adrian Zenz, a German researcher known for his studies on Uyghur re-education camps, was shared a total of 254 times by 64 accounts but just a handful of accounts were responsible for the majority of these shares – six different accounts posting the article as reply 89, 19, 13, 11, 8 and 8 times respectively. Another article on the Gray Zone, also aimed at attacking research on Uyghurs detention camps and Adrian Zenz, was shared 127 times by 54 accounts with five accounts sharing it 16,12, 7, 6 and 5 times respectively.
Comparable to findings from a previous ISD report investigating pro-CCP accounts, analysts identified the targets of the replies as predominantly verified media accounts: Voice of America Chinese was found to be the most targeted account with 20,448 mentions, followed by Deutsche Welle Chinese, BBC Chinese, Radio France Internationale Chinese and New York Times Chinese.
While analysts cannot infer attribution to the activities of this network of accounts, it exhibits the same behaviour and shares characteristics associated with previously identified inauthentic and coordinated networks. Such behaviour includes the creation of accounts in batches, as well as coordinated replies aimed at promoting pro-CCP narratives and attacking criticism. What this investigation now evidences is the use of a new tactic to promote these narratives online: that of boosting content from Western influencers who share narratives sympathetic to the Chinese government.
Data collection note
Data was collected via Twitter’s public API. Data was collected and analysed using Method52, a system for gathering, analysing and visualising online discussion at scale.
*This article has been updated on 16 June 2021 to reflect the following changes to engagement metrics based on a review of the methodology used. This does not affect the outcome of the study or the conclusions made in the article.
“This tweet was shared over 2,100 times by a total of three accounts, however, just one of them was responsible for over 2,000 shares of the same link in the period between 12 and 17 April 2021.” This is as opposed to the tweet being shared 2,145 times by a total of five accounts as originally stated.
“The first of Nathan Rich’s videos were shared over 700 times each by three unique users, and the latter two by the same single user”. This is as opposed to four unique users as originally stated.
“The ‘2020 vision’ video uploaded to Youtube was shared 785 times by one unique user and the Periscope version was shared 643 times also by the same user.” This is as opposed to the Youtube video link being shared by 17 accounts and the Periscope video being shared by 14 accounts as originally stated.
The authors’ would also like to note that other links in the dataset were found to be shared a high number of times by different accounts as replies. These findings have been added into the ‘Content of Replies’ section.