Italy is facing dark days because of coronavirus and there is a lot of disinformation about this topic, especially on messaging apps and social networks (the journalist Jane Lytvynenko is collecting and debunking a large number of fake news about COVID-19). Last week (03/12) China sent a team of doctors and equipment for Italian hospitals, a part of which Italy will pay for. The Chinese Embassy in Italy reported the news on Twitter and – during these particular days – their Twitter account is particular active. Their tweets have generated many retweets, likes and positive replies – many thanks from Italian people – because coronavirus is a world issue and people are scared. This is the bright side of it, but there is another side: many tweets and reactions seem to have been created by bots or suspicious accounts, usually with few tweets, no profile pic, absolutely pro Chinese government and anti USA. If you try to reply in a negative way to the Chinese Embassy in Italy (@AmbCina), you will probably receive this message from some users: nmsl, Chinese slang that stands for “Your mom is dead”.
I monitored the retweets of this Chinese Embassy’s tweet:
Per combattere insieme l’epidemia da #Covid19, la #Cina ha inviato in Italia un team di medici esperti del National Health Commission of China e della Red Cross Society of China. Il team volerà oggi a #Roma con donazioni di attrezzature e di materiali sanitari. #ForzaCinaeItalia pic.twitter.com/90PI48dfUn
— Ambasciata Repubblica Popolare Cinese in Italia (@AmbCina) March 12, 2020
and I found some suspicious accounts, but at first I didn’t give them importance:
Taking a better look at the reactions to @AmbCina’s tweets and the replies, I noticed other weird numbers and accounts:
HOW DO THESE ACCOUNTS ACT?
Usually they don’t write tweets and don’t retweet, someone give some replies, usually replies are insults against China opponents’ tweets or against the USA, but their main activity is to boost pro-China tweets by liking them. This especially happens with tweets that are about One-China policy (against Hong Kong protests) or give a different story-telling about coronavirus where China has no faults, or, in general, if they give a positive outlook on Chinese government.
They seem to follow a scheme, but I cannot know if they are bots – probably “human-bots” – or only nationalist people because – obviously – I cannot view their IP addresses.
However, by searching “nmsl” you can find many similar accounts that reply to China opponents, especially if the negative tweets are replies to government accounts (e.g. see @AmbCina or @zlj517, Chinese Foreign Ministry), so it seems to be a worldwide trend. I don’t and cannot know whether the Chinese government is trying to manipulate public opinion on Twitter and to create a positive story-telling about government’s choices, but all these accounts seem to behave in a coordinate way. Only Twitter can really investigate on them, and I hope they are doing it.
Update (2020/03/18): Twitter are apparently limiting and suspending some accounts.