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Coordinated bots spread China bioweapon conspiracy theory on Twitter: Australian research

By Xian Jiangnan (People's Daily Online)    17:12, June 11, 2020

On June 1, the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based independent think tank, published a report entitled Like a virus: the coordinated spread of coronavirus disinformation.

The coronavirus pandemic has been paralleled by an ‘infodemic’ of mis- and disinformation and a China bioweapon conspiracy on social media, according to Australian researchers.

On June 1, a report entitled Like a virus: the coordinated spread of coronavirus disinformation was published. Compiled by the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based independent think tank, and the Queensland University of Technology, the research found out that there are many bot-like accounts on social media spreading rumors that the coronavirus is “a bioweapon created by China”.

The study analyzed 2.6 million tweets relating to coronavirus and their 25.5 million retweets over 10 days from late March 2020, identifying 5,752 accounts that coordinated 6,559 times to spread mis- and disinformation regarding the coronavirus for either commercial or political purposes.

In analyzing the coordinated efforts to promote the China bioweapon conspiracy theory, the research found that the theory focused on 882 original tweets, which were retweeted 18,498 times and liked 31,783 times, creating an estimated 5 million impressions on Twitter users, spread mainly by pro-Trump, partisan conservative and/or QAnon accounts.

There was a sustained level of coordinated amplification of the “China bioweapon conspiracy” through the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic by pro-Trump, Republican and aligned networks of accounts, said the report.

According to the research, many of the accounts are very likely to be highly automated or "bot" accounts, controlled by computers rather than humans, as accounts that “retweet identical coronavirus-related content repeatedly within one second of each other were identified”.

"It's not genuine behavior of human users," Rod Campbell, research director at the Australia Institute, told Xinhua on Wednesday.

The conspiracy theory emerged in January 2020, along with claims that the coronavirus was an artificial biological weapon manufactured by the Chinese government in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “To date, there is no scientific evidence to support this idea and it has come under criticism from WHO and other leading health organizations,” said the report.

The research said the coordinated inauthentic activities seek to exploit the concerns, fears, and prejudices of ordinary, human social media users, thereby enrolling these users to do the work of the conspiracy theorists themselves.

"It can't be good for coordinated efforts to fight coronavirus. It can't be good for public health or diplomatic relations," Campbell said.

The report called upon governments, non-government actors and technology platforms to address coordinated disinformation campaigns through means such as increased detection and mitigation.

“We also need to look at digital literacy in the population, and be running programs and government campaigns to help people to be able to spot a ridiculous theory and learn how to ignore it, and how to have more civilized online discussions,” Campbell said. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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