Suspected bots parrot China’s propaganda on Canada election interference

A large volume of Twitter accounts tweeting about Beijing’s interference in Canada’s elections appear to exhibit bot-like behaviour. 

True North analyzed and translated 1,128 unique tweets on Chinese-language social media referencing the terms “China (and) Canada” or “Trudeau” which dated back to March 3, 2023. 

Of the 688 accounts identified to be regularly engaging on the topic of election interference, 19.1% or 132 accounts showed classic indicators of being bots. Both the Twitter API and the Google API were employed for the purposes of this research. 

The accounts in question sought to delegitimize media and intelligence reports which indicate that China has campaigned to interfere in Canada’s recent elections. Efforts included parroting Chinese state propaganda, directly attacking the credibility of the claims or downplaying their significance. 

This snapshot of data raises concerns about how China continues to manipulate social media discourse to influence opinions among the Chinese diaspora abroad. 

One of the more prolific accounts named “1banshengfu” has tweeted up to 160 times in one day while the account was only created on January 6, 2023. Its sole purpose seems to be to spread Chinese government talking points. 

The bot-like account downplayed election interference claims accusing Canada of being a “puppet state of the United States” and of insignificant interest to the Chinese government.  

Content regularly posted by 1banshengfu derides Chinese dissidents in Hong Kong, spreads propaganda about the Uyghur people and other messaging in-line with China’s interests.  

According to Macdonald-Laurier Institute visiting fellow and Japan Institute of International Affairs researcher Kyoko Kuwahara, while China bans the use of western social media platforms at home, at the same time it takes advantage of the capabilities of Twitter to disseminate propaganda on a large scale. 

“Taking advantage of this mechanism, China tends to seek to create a favorable information environment for itself by disseminating the information which is favorable for them on these platform,” Kuwahara told True North.

“When China was criticized for its repression of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it also disseminated its own claims and narratives, for instance using some videos which showed the Uyghurs saying that they live happily.”

Kuwahara warned that China is even employing AI technology to generate disinformation and further research will be required to combat the communist regime’s efforts at a global level.

The false claim that Canada was of insignificant interest for China was one of the most common narratives spread by the accounts identified. A variety of messages were employed including that the  Chinese government had “no time” for Canadians, that there was “no interest” in Canada’s affairs and other statements.

In reality, China’s strategic interest in Canada is well documented. For starters, Canada is a pacific nation like China and plays a prominent role in NATO – with Canadian maritime forces regularly partaking in naval exercises in the South China Sea. China also wants a stake in the Canadian arctic, even going so far as conducting surveillance in the region. 

“Laughing, little Canada, the population is not as many as a city in China, why bother?” tweeted user kk47365435 in response to an article on election interference claims written by New York Times. 

A look at the user’s timeline shows a history of engaging with topics of strategic interest to the Chinese Communist Party including criticizing Taiwan and US foreign policy in the South China Sea. According to Twitter data, the account was only created on Jan. 25, 2023, shortly after the Globe and Mail reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was made aware of the election interference allegations by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. 

As explained by Google News Lab’s First Draft, some indicators of bot activity include recent account creation dates, suspicious handles or low to no followers, among other activities. Twitter users included in the analysis were either created after Global News first revealed that China had influenced 11 federal candidates in the 2019 election or met several of the above stated indicators. 

Some suspicious users like h975853h, W487g and shandong6667 also disseminated a large amount of sexually explicit material alongside pro-China political content– a common tactic employed by Chinese bots to generate noise around topics controversial for communist China’s regime, like Hong Kong for instance. 

“Canada is not worth China’s interference at all,” tweeted shandong6667.

“You overestimate yourselves. In the eyes of the Chinese, Canada is too weak and no one will pay attention to such an inconspicuous country,” replied h97853h in response to a National Post article.

“China does not even interfere with neighbouring countries, but also interferes in Canada? Fools slander us,” wrote W487g.

The account tancunyin110 was also of concern, floating a common narrative that Canada was interfering in China’s affairs and not the other way around. 

“Non-interference in internal affairs is a basic principle of China’s diplomacy. Canada is asked to take back its dirty hands (from) interfering in China’s internal affairs, such as issues related to Xinjiang and Taiwan,” tweeted tancunyin110.

Numerous reports outline China’s use of bots to influence public opinion and spread disinformation. Either by way of hijacked accounts or users made for the specific purpose of spreading Chinese propaganda, the threat posed by Beijing operatives is constant. 

Twitter is aware of the problem. On several occasions the platform has suspended accounts believed to be connected with China and other foreign state-actors. In Aug. 2019, Twitter suspended 936 Chinese government linked accounts. Then in June 2020, nearly 200,000 accounts were suspended for the same reason. 

According to Kuwahara, in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social media platforms have been doing a better job at containing the malign influence of foreign disinformation campaigns. 

“Failure of Russian information warfare this time, especially in Western countries, is probably due in part to the role of US-led platforms,” said Kuwahara. 

In Canada, the Chinese diaspora has been a victim of Chinese disinformation campaigns. According to research out of McGill University, a state-coordinated effort targeted former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu during the 2021 election by spreading false claims about him and his party on the Chinese-language social media platform WeChat. 

Chiu has maintained that he was targeted by the Chinese government and lost his seat because of the disinformation operation. 

Kuwahara told True North that there are “three main categories” of Chinese diaspora being targeted by Beijing. The first was those who believe the CCP’s propaganda, followed by those who were skeptical. 

“They avoid overt criticism of the CCP but are also not complicit in actively spreading China’s claims,” said Kuwahara. 

The last was those who reject China’s propaganda but are compelled to participate in foreign influence networks like the United Front. 

“There is no clear evidence to indicate what proportion of these exist. This is why, in my understanding, it is important for us to communicate with and approach the Chinese diaspora in a way that can promote their understanding of western ideas,” Kuwahara told True North. 


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