THE BLOG

Did China's State-Run News Agency Purchase Twitter Followers?

15/04/2015 10:28 BST | Updated 14/06/2015 10:59 BST

The Chinese state news agency Xinhua may have purchased followers on Twitter, according the co-founder of TwitterAudit, a tool designed to detect fake users on the popular social media platform.

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An audit conducted last May on the "@XHNews" English Twitter feed suggested that only 11% of the news agency's followers were real. The TwitterAudit.com tool sampled 5,000 of Xinhua's 1.56million Twitter followers, basing the score on how active and established the agency's followers were.

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It is possible that Xinhua purchased followers at some point in an attempt to appear more legitimate. In response to emailed questions, David Caplan, co-founder of TwitterAudit, wrote that "it is easy to purchase followers, just search Google. Lots of sites sell them."

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A fresh analysis conducted last month revealed a healthier score of 86 per cent, suggesting that Twitter had deleted low-quality, "zombie accounts" from their system. Social media expert and author Jay Oatway, said that "it could be very likely be a shift in their algorithm" adding that "whatever 'fakes' they decided to suspend was the one type of follower Xinhua had."

Caplan said that "The fake follower industry works pretty hard to set up fake accounts that 'look real'. The reason is that Twitter actively looks for fake users and deletes them regularly."

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According to a similar tool at socialbakers.com, the number of Twitter accounts Xinhua itself was following dropped sharply from around 450 on 15 March to 81 a day later. It is likely the fraudulent accounts were also deleted in a clear-out by Twitter.

One user attempted to keep track of Xinhua's suspicious account activity last year. Under the Twitter handle @6Jing, Fake Followers Watch suggested that Xinhua "purchased" 25,000 followers on May 9th last year. Over the space of a few days, it charted unusual and sudden increases in Xinhua followers - sometimes in the hundreds of thousands.

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In a story published on March 30th, Xinhua claimed to have struck a social media partnership with the Associated Press. However, on 3 April, the AP's media relations director Paul Colford said that "there is no social media sharing arrangement planned between AP and Xinhua," according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

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At the time of writing, Chinese state-backed news outlets Global Times and People's Daily had around 28,000 followers and 93,000 Twitter followers respectively. With a fan base of 1.5million, Xinhua's three year old account is the most popular news-related Twitter feed in China - BBC Chinese is placed second with 237,707 followers. Xinhua appears to be more popular than the UK-based Independent and ten times more popular than the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

The presence of the Communist Party's official press agency on Twitter caused uproar in 2012 with Chinese netizens questioning why they were banned from using the American social network while Beijing-based Xinhua had access. Twitter.com remains blocked by China's "Great Fire Wall" and is only accessible through private network and proxy services.

Twitter and Xinhua did not respond to enquiries.