Twitter's Labels Cut Likes and Retweets for China State Media Accounts: Report

Chinese media outlets relying on Twitter to amplify Beijing's views have seen a significant reduction in likes and retweets since the social network began labeling state-affiliated accounts last year, according to new analysis released this week.

China's troubles with the platform have continued into 2021, with Twitter confirming Thursday that it had locked an account run by the Chinese embassy in Washington over a rule-breaking tweet it has so far refused to delete for two weeks.

On Monday, the Hong Kong-based China Media Project (CMP) put out a report detailing the impact Twitter's labeling policy has had on 33 official Chinese accounts. Comparing tweets over a 50-day period before and after Twitter's implementation of the policy, CMP found that accounts run by some of China's biggest media groups experienced a notable drop in engagement.

China's state news agency Xinhua and CGTN, the rebranded international arm of state broadcaster CCTV, both saw their number of Twitter likes drop by 20 percent after their accounts were labeled as state-affiliated, the report said.

Engagement on the account run by China Daily fell by double digits, while the nationalist Communist Party newspaper Global Times lost 31 percent of its likes, wrote Shanghai-based co-authors Kevin Schoenmakers and Claire Liu.

Influential party paper People's Daily, which publishes Global Times, also lost 20 percent of its likes and retweets after the roll-out, the research found. One noteworthy outlier was the Twitter account run by iPanda, CCTV's giant panda channel, which saw user engagement rise by more than 50 percent.

The labeling policy, which began last August, has so far only been applied to state-affiliated accounts from the five United Nations Security Council members. According to Twitter's policy announcement, the accounts of key government officials receive labels, as do certain media entities and their senior staff.

"State-affiliated media is defined as outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution," Twitter wrote. "Unlike independent media, state-affiliated media frequently use their news coverage as a means to advance a political agenda."

Alongside the labeling, Twitter had also stopped amplifying state-affiliated media accounts, preventing them from showing up among top search results, said CMP, a research program studying China's media landscape with the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

Twitter said it was planning to expand its labels beyond accounts associated with the current group of China, France, Russian, the U.K. and the U.S.

However, a spokesperson was unable to elaborate on the metrics Twitter uses to measure the policy's effectiveness. It was also unclear whether the labeling policy was subject to periodic review.

As the report notes, it is not possible to definitively claim causality between Twitter's policy and the loss of likes and retweets experienced by official Chinese accounts. It was also difficult to ascertain how the policy had been received by those operating the media outlets.

However, the authors did find a comment by Hu Xijin, the vocal editor-in-chief of Global Times, who, after noticing a drop in his Twitter followers, said the social network was trying to "choke" his account.

In addition to tagging my account with the "China state-affiliated media" label, I don't know what Twitter has done to stop my account from receiving over 1000 new followers every day. I've even started to see more unfollows. It seems Twitter will eventually choke my account.

— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) August 14, 2020

"As my interviewee says in the report, there are no [Chinese] media companies that are completely not affiliated with the state," Schoenmakers, a freelance journalist, told Newsweek on Wednesday. "The Chinese government's control of information is vital."

In the wake of former President Donald Trump's ban, Schoenmakers said Twitter, being a private company, "can do as they wish." But he felt it was "healthy that they to some extent police what goes on."

"It's not just political stuff. It's also harassment, etc., that I think good-faith Twitter users would want them to clamp down on," he added.

While researching Twitter's labeling policy, Schoenmakers noticed Twitter users who, thanks to the tag, realized they had been engaging with a state-affiliated account.

"I saw users who said, 'I didn't realize I was responding to a Chinese outlet,' or 'I didn't realize you were state-affiliated media,'" he said. "I imagine that if some people tweet that, probably a lot more people think that."

Schoenmakers said the figures suggested Twitter's policy has been effective, although it was hard to prove conclusively.

Discourse power

CMP's report makes mention of China's decade-long attempt to project a more positive image of itself through mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. State news outlets like Xinhua and CCTV also have accounts on YouTube.

Meanwhile, citizens in China are banned from the U.S.-based social networking sites, with access from the mainland possible only through the limited use of authorized virtual private networks—or VPNs.

Public diplomacy with foreign publics and propaganda campaigns to dictate narratives surrounding its policies are done via mediums like Twitter, which the Chinese government has come to see as a useful tool for the accumulation of soft power, especially when the majority of its citizens cannot contradict them.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was head of state between 2003 and 2013, was the first to elevate soft power to a national policy level in 2007. Beijing would focus on its rich cultural heritage and language, with government-funded education bodies like the Confucius Institute helping to drive the supply worldwide.

Hu's successor Xi Jinping, whose catchphrase is to "tell China's story well," has continued this push. It was crucial that China's cultural rise was seen above its growing military strength and economic dominance.

The strategy was best summed up by Joseph Nye, the American political scientist who created the concept of hard and soft powers, who wrote in 2013: "Traditional power politics is typically about whose military or economy wins... Politics in an information age may ultimately be about whose story wins."

Locked out

Recently, however, China's wielding of Twitter as a tool to justify its policies in Xinjiang has seen it run afoul of the company's terms of use.

On Thursday, a Twitter spokesperson told Newsweek it had "temporarily locked" the account operated by the Chinese embassy in the United States over a tweet that had violated its policy against "dehumanization."

The post on January 7, which linked to an article on China Daily, declared that Uyghur women in Xinjiang were no longer "baby-making machines" thanks to the government's work in "eradicating extremism."

Twitter removed the post, but the embassy tweeted several more times before its account was suspended on January 9. One accompanying tweet, which remains live, links to an almost identical Xinhua article claiming the minds of Uyghur Muslim women had been "emancipated."

Twitter said the account would remain locked until the tweet was deleted, suggesting the post has yet to be removed by the user after two weeks.

The social media company's policy against dehumanization states: "We prohibit the dehumanization of a group of people based on their religion, caste, age, disability, serious disease, national origin, race, or ethnicity."

China's foreign ministry said it was "confused" by Twitter's decision to stop the embassy "[clarifying] the true," suggesting the firm was applying double standards.

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File photo: The suspended Twitter account of former President Donald Trump. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images