China mining social media to harvest data on western targets

China mines social media sites including Twitter and Facebook to equip its military and government agencies with data on Western targets, bidding documents reveal

  • China is mining social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, to harvest data on foreign targets to be used by its military, police and other agencies
  • Bidding documents and contracts reviewed by the Washington Post revealed costly purchases of sophisticated data surveillance systems
  • The new software will allow the Chinese state to ‘better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel’ 
  • The nation’s leaders are also forming a network of warning systems that will sound real-time alarms for trends that undermine the state’s interests 
  • Analyzing domestic public opinion online is a large pillar of President Xi Jinping’s initiative to modernize the country’s ‘propaganda apparatus and maintain control over the Internet’ 

China is mining social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to harvest data on Western targets for its military, police and government agencies. 

The government is purchasing newer and more sophisticated data surveillance systems to collect information on foreign entities, according to the Washington Post which reviewed bidding documents and contracts for over 300 Chinese government projects dating back to early 2020.   

The documents revealed the purchase of a $320,000 Chinese state media software that mines social media to create a database of foreign journalists and academics.

Officials also purchased a $216,000 Beijing police intelligence program that targets Hong Kong and Taiwan and a Xinjiang cybercenter that catalogues Uyghur language content abroad. 

An analyst with China’s Central Propaganda Department said the software will allow the state to ‘better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel’.

The nation’s leaders are also forming a network of warning systems that will sound real-time alarms for trends that threaten or undermine the state’s interests. 

China’s systems for analyzing domestic public opinion online are a large pillar of President Xi Jinping’s (pictured) initiative to modernize the country’s ‘propaganda apparatus and maintain control over the Internet’

China is mining social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to harvest data on western targets for its military, police and government agencies

Some of the highly customizable programs China is purchasing are used to collect real-time data from individual social media users, while others track broad trends including US elections. This type of data collection is banned by both Twitter and Facebook, unless prior authorization has been given

China is using its internal internet-data surveillance network to gather information on its western targets as part of a wider drive to refine foreign propaganda efforts. 

Documents obtained by the newspaper revealed the Chinese government has budgeted for the buying and maintaining of foreign social media accounts on behalf of the police and propaganda department.

Other purchases ranged from small, automated programs to large projects costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The state is also budgeting for 24/7 staffing of teams that include English speakers and foreign policy specialists. 

Some of the highly customizable programs are used to collect real-time data from individual social media users, while others track broad trends including US elections. 

‘On the back of the Sino-US trade talks and the Hong Kong rioting incident, it’s becoming clearer day by day that the public opinion news war is arduous and necessary,’ state-backed newspaper China Daily wrote in a July 2020 bidding document for a $300,000 ‘foreign personnel analysis platform.’ 

‘We are competing with the US and Western media, the battle for the right to speak has begun,’ the document read. 

It also issued specifications for a program that would mine Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for data on ‘well known Western media journalists’ and other ‘key personnel from political, business and media circles.’

The program would automatically collect and store the data in real-time on Chinese servers for analysis.  

This type of data collection is banned by both Twitter and Facebook, unless prior authorization has been given. 

‘Our API provides real-time access to public data and Tweets only, not private information. We prohibit use of our API for surveillance purposes, as per our developer policy and terms,’ Katie Rosborough, a Twitter spokesperson, told the Washington Post. 

Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Meanwhile, those familiar with the software and China’s domestic public opinion network described the efforts as ‘terrifying’ and a reflection of how strongly the government feels about battling public opinion.

‘They are now reorienting part of that effort outward, and I think that’s frankly terrifying, looking at the sheer numbers and sheer scale that this has taken inside China,’ said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

‘It really shows that they now feel it’s their responsibility to defend China overseas and fight the public opinion war overseas.’ 

China’s systems for analyzing domestic public opinion online are a large pillar of President Xi Jinping’s initiative to modernize the country’s ‘propaganda apparatus and maintain control over the Internet’. 

The large data collection and monitoring will offer government officials insight into public opinion and provide technical surveillance for the nation’s censorship apparatus (Pictured: President Xi Jinping delivering his New Year speech on December 31, 2021)

The large data collection and monitoring will offer government officials insight into public opinion and provide technical surveillance for the nation’s censorship apparatus. 

Officials argue monitoring and analysis are essential to ‘public opinion guidance work,’ a program aiming to mold public opinion in favor of Beijing through censorship and targeted propaganda.

The nation’s public opinion efforts date back to 1989 in response to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.

While the exact scope of the nation’s current public opinion monitoring network is unknown, in 2014 a state-backed newspaper reported more than 2 million people were working as public opinion analysts.

In 2018, another government approved media outlet described the industry as being worth ‘tens of billions of yuan,’ which is equivalent to billions of dollars. The official also said the industry was growing at a rate of 50 percent each year.

In June 2020, Twitter suspended 23,000 accounts believed to be linked to the Chinese Communist Party.

The platform alleged the accounts were covertly spreading propaganda to undermine pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. 

As of December 2021, Twitter said it removed a further 2,048 accounts associated with Beijing and propaganda efforts.

Experts believe those accounts represent a small fraction of Chinese-run accounts. 

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