Chinese computational propaganda: automation, algorithms and the manipulation of information about Chinese politics on Twitter and Weibo

A 2016 review of literature about automation, algorithms and politics identified China as the foremost area in which further research was needed because of the size of its population, the potential for Chinese algorithmic manipulation in the politics of other countries, and the frequency of exportation of Chinese software and hardware. This paper contributes to the small body of knowledge on the first point (domestic automation and opinion manipulation) and presents the first piece of research into the second (international automation and opinion manipulation). Findings are based on an analysis of 1.5 million comments on official political information posts on Weibo and 1.1 million posts using hashtags associated with China and Chinese politics on Twitter. In line with previous research, little evidence of automation was found on Weibo. In contrast, a large amount of automation was found on Twitter. However, contrary to expectations and previous news reports, no evidence was found of pro-Chinese-state automation on Twitter. Automation on Twitter was associated with anti-Chinese-state perspectives and published in simplified Mandarin, presumably aimed at diasporic Chinese and mainland users who ‘jump the wall’ to access blocked platforms. These users come to Twitter seeking more diverse information and an online public sphere but instead they find an information environment in which a small number of anti-Chinese-state voices are attempting to use automation to dominate discourse. Our understanding of public conversation on Twitter in Mandarin is extremely limited and, thus, this paper advances the understanding of political communication on social media.

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Technology and Society
Public Policy
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International Affairs