Undeadly serious: Bram Stoker’s vampire novel, and scantily clad women, were used to spread Chinese propaganda on Twitter.
by Massimo Introvigne
Lucy Westenra had been bitten by Count Dracula. “When he saw her, Arthur was simply choking with emotion.” Meaning Arthur Holmwood, Lucy’s fiancé. For fans of Dracula, the vampire novel published in 1897 by Bram Stoker, it is a nice trivia game to detect where in the book the sentence comes from (spoiler: it is in Chapter 12). If the game is proposed by a scantily clad young woman, things get even more interesting.
All of a sudden, thousands of accounts offering sentences from Dracula appeared on Twitter last year. Some also showed up on Facebook and YouTube. Those who made friends or followed the sexy Dracula fans were up for a surprise. Soon, they started receiving messages of Chinese propaganda claiming that all is well in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and attacking those who criticize the CCP.
“Dracula’s Botnet” was identified in 2020. It served different purposes. The (probably Chinese) hackers who created the project were not against making some money, and also used the accounts to direct users interested in Dracula to pornographic Web sites. But a good part was Chinese propaganda.
Twitter decided to make some cleaning, and identified 23,750 main accounts, and 150,000 “amplifier” accounts designated to boost the content of the first, for a total of 173,750 accounts connected with governmental agencies of the People’s Republic of China.
This was in June 2020, but Dracula rarely stays dead. According to a report the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has just released, the Dracula accounts resurfaced after Twitter’s clean-up, mostly posting anti-American material and CCP propaganda about Xinjiang.
As noted in an articled published on March 30 in The Diplomat, this is part of an enormous effort by the CCP aimed at spreading disinformation through Western social networks (which, ironically, are blocked in China). Once regarded as laughable, the Chinese trolls are becoming more and more professional.
As the ASPI report notes, they are connected with “fringe media” in the West, whose main purpose is to spread Chinese and Russian propaganda. ASPI calls the area where these media operates a “grey zone” between overt and covert CCP operations, a pun on the name of a U.S.-based Web magazine called The Grayzone, which has published vicious attacks against Adrian Zenz, the first scholar who exposed the transformation through education camps in Xinjiang, Bitter Winter, and ASPI itself.
We at Bitter Winter never answered The Grayzone, a hired gun for China, Russia, and all sort of dictators and tyrants, provided they said something against the United States. We largely regarded the magazine as a joke, and wondered whether it had any readers. It seems it does, but the ASPI report tells us that “it gets 61.17% of its traffic from social media and around 89.63% of that traffic from Twitter.” There would be nothing wrong about it, if not for the fact that one of the main purposes of the CCP’s spamouflage operations and fake accounts on Twitter and other social media seem to be to promote The Grayzone (Russian trolls also lend a helping hand).
And it is not the trolls only. “The Grayzone was cited in English at least 252 times in Chinese state-owned news outlets (the Global Times, CGTN and Xinhua) and a further 61 times in People’s Daily Online articles.” Chinese government’s official spokespersons also retweet The Grayzone liberally. ASPI notes that there were almost no mentions of The Grayzone by the CCP before December 2019, when the magazine started its campaign against Zenz and other critics of China (including Bitter Winter).
This is a perfect circle: the CCP feeds its disinformation to The Grayzone, then quotes The Grayzone (or, sometimes, Russian media such as Sputnik that quote The Grayzone) as evidence that “independent American media” support the CCP.
The only problem, it is all a little bit too obvious. Creating a bot that takes bits and pieces from Dracula the novel is easy. Imitating the legendary cunning of Count Dracula is much more difficult.