Unveiling the Digital Battlefield: Chinese Information Manipulation on Twitter and the Shaping of Hong Kong Narratives

Groupd members: Dechun Zhang, Bobo Huang, Ke Song, Kaiqi Zhu,, Chengchong Wu

Digital Research Seminar Data Sprint Report Group 50

Supervisor: Dr. Bharath Ganesh


While Chinese media has experienced some level of freedom due to economic reforms (Tan, 2012; Xu, 2016), it is widely perceived as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Duan & Takahashi, 2017). Owned, funded, and monitored by the Chinese government (Chan & Qiu, 2001; Jian & Liu, 2018), some scholars go so far as to regard Chinese media as an affiliate organization of the government (Duan & Takahashi, 2017; Qi, 2018; Zhang, 2021). Consequently, Chinese media is viewed as serving the political interests of the Chinese government (Duan & Takahashi, 2017; Qi, 2018; Jian & Liu, 2018). In this context, scholars emphasize that nationalism is a significant feature of Chinese media’s propaganda, fostering anti-Western sentiment (Friend & Thayer, 2017; Guang, 2005) and highlighting the achievements of the CCP and the government (Duan, 2017; Zhao, 2004; Zhang & Xu, 2023).

As noted by Zhang, Zhang, and Shao (2023), Chinese media tends to portray China in a positive light while presenting the West in a negative manner, as evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Chinese media represents Chinese COVID-19 vaccines as global saviors, aiding many developing countries, while downplaying their lower efficiency rate (Zhang & Bux Jamali, 2022). In this context, Chinese propaganda, especially in the realm of nationalism, employs positive narratives to enhance the image of the CCP and negative narratives to cast Western democracies in an unfavorable light (Modongal, 2016; Friend & Thayer, 2017; Zhang & Xu, 2023; Zhang & Bux Jamali, 2022). Zhang, Zhang, and Blanchard (2022) identify a similar pattern in China’s state-sponsored international broadcasters.

State-sponsored international news or international broadcasting, delivered through various formats such as radio, television, and social media, is prevalent globally, with examples including Voice of America (VOA) in the US, BBC World in the UK, CGTN in China, and Russian Times in Russia (Price, Haas, & Margolin, 2008; Zhang et al., 2018). These entities aim to target foreign audiences (Youmans & Powers, 2012). International broadcasting involves “the management process by which an organization or individual actor, for political purposes, through purposeful communication and action, seeks to influence and establish, build, and maintain beneficial relationships and reputations with its key publics to help support its mission and achieve its goals” (Strömbäck & Kiousis, 2011, p. 8). Despite the United States maintaining a dominant position in shaping perceptions of international politics through news and social media (Löfflmann, 2013), it has been reducing funding for public diplomacy (Nelson, 2013; Zakaria, 2017). In contrast, China is actively expanding its role in international diplomacy through social media to influence public awareness (Rawnsley, 2015; Zhang, Zhang & Blanchard, 2022).

Zhang, Zhang, and Blanchard (2022) observe that CGTN strategically utilizes YouTube to portray China positively during international conflicts, employing preferred official Chinese sources and adopting a peace-oriented frame amidst conflict to manipulate perceptions among global audiences. As Gitlin (1980) defines it, a news frame involves organizing words, images, and thoughts to construct a narrative. However, due to political influences (Althusser, 1971; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996), the same story or issue can be framed differently through the media (Entman, 1993; Lasorsa, 1997). In this context, framing involves presenting and communicating themes by emphasizing selected aspects of real events while marginalizing others. This process shapes a specific interpretation of the message, intending to garner more publicity, justify standpoints on specific issues, and fulfill the mission of convincing potential followers (Guenther et al., 2020; Entman, 1993). For example, U.S. newspapers may positively frame protesters, while Russian newspapers may portray protesters negatively during political movements in the former Soviet republics (Zhang & Fahmy, 2009). In a more recent context, Du, Zhu, and Yang (2018) compared the framing of the Hong Kong Occupy Central protest by media outlets from the UK, the U.S., mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. They found that each of the five media sources focused on different aspects in their framing of the protest (Du, Zhu & Yang, 2018).

Fan, Pan, and Sheng (2024) propose that the Chinese government has intensified its focus on conducting propaganda on Twitter. However, existing studies have primarily concentrated on analyzing the news coverage of state media in their efforts to engage with the overseas public, aiming to effectively convey China’s narrative and voice (Zhang, Zhang & Blanchard, 2022; Brady, 2015). There has been comparatively less attention given to understanding how the Chinese government manipulates the Twitter environment through narrative and sentiment. Moreover, there is a notable gap in research on how the Chinese government conducts propaganda directed at the Twitter Chinese community, representing overseas Chinese or those with the ability to access Twitter (given that Twitter is blocked in mainland China). These individuals have more diverse sources for accessing information compared to mainland Chinese citizens, as they can access Twitter, potentially providing deeper insights into the Chinese government’s strategies for influencing well-informed citizens. Therefore, this study aims to explore how the Chinese government influences discussions on Hong Kong issues on Twitter, with sub-research questions: 1) What are the main themes of the Hong Kong issues that the Chinese government posts on Twitter? 2) What is the sentiment of these themes? 3) Who are the specific targets within the Chinese community for the Chinese propaganda on Twitter?

We are currently experiencing an era of information explosion, where news can rapidly disseminate, and information stocks have surged with the advent of the internet. Social media now plays a pivotal role in gathering information, raising public awareness, and influencing public perception (Groshek & Koc-Michalska, 2017; Zhang & Xu, 2023; Zhang, Zhang & Shao, 2023), as it transcends geographical boundaries and reshapes the relationship between the state and the public (Stasberger, 2023; Mihelj & Jiménez-Martínez, 2019; Yang, 2009). In this sense, countries’ official media adopt digitalization and tight their control on social media (Hong, 2012; Emmett, 2009; King, Pan, and Roberts, 2013), China is no exception (King et al., 2013; Creemers, 2017; Chen & Gao, 2023).


This project focuses on issues related to Hong Kong to address the research question. Hong Kong was chosen due to its unique political context, encompassing both international and domestic politics. The city’s history involves British colonization, which significantly influenced its governance and traditions (Zhang et al., 2018). Despite being under Communist China’s rule, Hong Kong operates under the policy of “one country, two systems,” designed to safeguard the autonomy of this Special Administrative Region (SAR). Notably, there has been a growing political discord between mainland China and Hong Kong, evidenced by events such as the Hong Kong Occupy Central protest in 2014, the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in 2019, and the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020. Given these circumstances, the Hong Kong issues are of considerable interest to the Twitter Chinese community, providing a focused and relevant sample for our research.

The dataset contains information collected from 5241 accounts that Twitter identified as PRC-affiliated accounts. Through the Gephi, we have identified 33 communities. Among them, the most notable community is centered around K-pop and the Korean fandom, distinctly separate from the other groups. This observation suggests a potential irrelevance to our research question. Hence, we focused on the accounts within the second significant community predominantly belonging to media organizations and playing a central role in connecting the various other communities.

Upon obtaining the data, we utilized the Google Sheet filter function (=DETECTLANGUAGE) to filter out non-Chinese content, which aims to focus on the Twitter Chinese community, resulting in a new dataset containing 185600 posts exclusively in Chinese related to Hong Kong issues. Subsequently, we employ 4CAT to perform a ‘word tree’ analysis using the keyword ‘Hong Kong’ to identify the primary themes of the Chinese government’s manipulation and propaganda on Twitter. Zhang et al.’s (2018) categories are used for coding the themes, with all four team members participating (Krippendorff’s α = 0.86). Any differences in coding are discussed, and a mutual agreement is reached.

Following theme coding, all team members proceed to code the sentiment (positive = 1, negative = 0) based on the themes extracted from the ‘word tree,’ employing relevant keywords (Krippendorff’s α = 0.84). For example, certain keywords such as ‘crime’ (罪行), ‘incite’ (挑唆), and ‘destroy’ (破坏) carry a notably negative sentiment. On the other hand, keywords like ‘legal’ (依法), ‘selfless’ (无私), and ‘fearless’ (无畏) exhibit a distinctly positive sentiment. Subsequently, the project identifies the most engaged accounts related to Hong Kong issues. Using 4CAT, the project analyzes the pictures/memes posted by these accounts, aiming to discern the specific targets within the Chinese community that the Chinese propaganda on Twitter is directed towards.


This project has identified seven themes within the dataset of CCP-manipulated tweets, revealing a pattern where China is positively framed. At the same time, the Western countries and criticisms are portrayed in a negative light. Significantly, the target audience of these manipulated tweets appears to be Chinese individuals who believe in Guo Wengui’s accusations against Chinese leaders.

1. Themes

This study utilizes Zhang et al.’s (2018) categorized themes and identifies several prevalent themes within CCP’s manipulated Chinese tweets, including 1) policemen; 2) Hong Kong legislation; 3) crime; 4) international reactions; 5) protest; 6) financial and economic; and 7) other. The most significant theme in the dataset is centered around the Hong Kong police force. Within the CCP’s narrative, Hong Kong policemen’s actions are portrayed as being carried out ‘according to the law’ to ‘fulfill their duties,’ even as they handle protests assertively and align with the CCP's guidelines[1]. The narrative emphasizes the Hong Kong police as ‘selfless,’ ‘fearless,’ and ‘hardworking’ in their efforts to ‘defend the homeland.’ Additionally, the CCP's manipulated tweets emphasize Hong Kong legislation, focusing on the CCP’s actions in Hong Kong aimed at ensuring the city’s prosperity and stability. The framing of the Hong Kong issue as a ‘home’ matter underscores the Chinese government’s intent to highlight its actions in Hong Kong, showcasing legitimacy and support for entities aligning with the CCP.

Another frequently mentioned theme is crime in Hong Kong, specifically referencing the case of Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller who disappeared and later reappeared in police custody in China. The CCP’s manipulated tweets frame Gui as a criminal. Furthermore, these tweets assert that protesters opposing the Hong Kong national security law are attempting to evade criminal charges. Additionally, the theme of international reactions emerges, aimed at defending against criticism. The narrative suggests that ‘Western’ entities are leveraging Hong Kong issues to discredit China. The Chinese government also highlights the potential impact of the protests on stock prices and investments. Interestingly, there is a theme that involves mentioning Guo Wengui, a businessman who accused top Chinese officials of corruption.

2. Sentiment

This study reveals that CCP-manipulated tweets positively frame the theme of Hong Kong legislation through keywords such as ‘prosperity’ and ‘stability’. Given the criticism faced by the Hong Kong police for their handling of protests, the tweets adopt a dual approach in framing the policeman theme, portraying them both positively and negatively. As mentioned earlier, the narrative underscores the Hong Kong police as ‘selfless,’ ‘fearless,’ and ‘hardworking’ in their efforts to ‘defend the homeland.’ Simultaneously, the tweets also depict them as bearing humiliation due to criticism. Overall, the CCP-manipulated tweets tend to portray the Chinese government and its actions in a largely positive light.

However, the themes of crime, international reactions, protest, financial and economic, and Guo Wengui all convey a sense of negative sentiment. The manipulated tweets frame Western countries as attempting to discredit China, portraying protestors and Guo as criminals, and highlighting the negative impact on Hong Kong’s economy due to the protests. In essence, the CCP-manipulated tweets project a negative outlook towards individuals and entities critical of China, seeking to underscore a division between the Western countries and China.

3. Targets

This finding is intriguing as it identifies the top five engaged accounts on Hong Kong issues posting pictures or memes focused on Guo Wengui. These images aim to insult Guo Wengui, portraying him as a dog, a traitor, etc. The fact that the captions accompanying these pictures are all in Simplified Chinese suggests that the intended audience for these accounts is likely Chinese individuals critical of or those who believe in Guo’s accusations against senior Chinese leaders. The use of Simplified Chinese as the language of communication indicates an effort to specifically target and engage with this particular audience. The use of derogatory images and captions underscores an attempt to discredit and insult Guo Wengui, shaping a negative perception of him among the audience.


This study identifies seven key themes within CCP’s manipulated tweets, specifically focusing on the themes of policemen, Hong Kong legislation, crime, international reactions, protests, and financial and economic matters. These themes are deemed significant due to their association with major political events in recent years in Hong Kong (Zhang et al., 2018). The Chinese information manipulation and propaganda on social media aim to perform a delicate balancing act, playing the roles of information provider, mouthpiece, and information gatekeeper (Zhang, Zhang & Shao, 2023). The project observes a strategic omission in CCP manipulated tweets regarding the Hong Kong police's forceful handling of protests, aligning with Du, Zhu, and Yang’s (2018) findings that emphasize the downplaying of protest violence in Hong Kong.

This project finds a key narrative strategy involving delineating “outsiders” (such as protesters, pro-democracy politicians, and Western countries) from “insiders” (including the Hong Kong policemen, and the Chinese government (Zhang, Wang & Hu, 2023). Consistent with Molter and DiResta’s (2020) research, the study also finds the deliberate spread of overtly conspiratorial misinformation, utilizing such narratives as a rhetorical strategy for deflecting responsibility by implicating powerful external forces. Du, Zhu, and Yang (2018) suggested that political events can be framed as conflicts between the government and opponents or as clashes between the state and overseas forces. Crucially, Chinese information manipulation and propaganda aim to construct a binary narrative, emphasizing ‘righteous China versus evil opponents’ and ‘upright China versus the bullying West.’ In this sense, nationalism is the primary tool for the CCP to conduct information manipulation and propaganda (Zhang & Xu, 2023; Zhang, Zhang & Shao, 2023; Zhao, 2004). Similar to Zhang, Myers, and Wu’s (2019) findings, the study notes that Guo Wengui is prominently featured in Hong Kong-related tweets, despite not frequently commenting on Hong Kong issues. This suggests that the Chinese government aims to flood the discourse with information to manipulate opinions, sow confusion, and ultimately control the conversation (Chen & Gao, 2023; Creemers, 2017; Lei, 2011).

Furthermore, this study reveals that CCP-manipulated tweets not only positively frame the CCP, the Chinese government, and their supporters but also extensively cover positive stories, aligning with Molter and DiResta’s (2020) findings. Consequently, Chinese information manipulation and propaganda aim to cultivate a positive atmosphere (Zhang & Xu, 2023; Zhang, Zhang, & Shao, 2023; Du, Zhu & Yang, 2018). However, these manipulated posts simultaneously employ negative framing against opponents and Western countries. The incorporation of negative sentiments in CCP-manipulatedposts, especially amid external challenges, underscores the government’s use of nationalist sentiments to accentuate perceived threats to the nation (Mattingly & Yao, 2020). Thus, the mobilization of nationalism is closely linked to the promotion of positive sentiments toward China and the propagation of negative sentiments toward the West (Zhang & Xu, 2023; Zhang, Zhang, & Shao, 2023).

Lastly, our project asserts that CCP’s manipulated tweets strategically target Chinese individuals critical of Chinese leaders’ corruption, as evident in the prevalence of Guo Wengui-related content among the most engaged accounts discussing Hong Kong issues on Twitter. Given the Chinese government’s sensitivity to criticism, particularly from overseas (Zhang & Bux Jamali, 2022), it is understandable that they aim to reach Chinese individuals actively monitoring Guo’s activities. This aligns with the overarching objective of Chinese manipulated information and propaganda, aiming to strengthen CCP control, legitimize its authority, and counter criticism (Zheng, 1999; Mattingly & Yao, 2020; Zhang & Bux Jamali, 2022; Zhang, Zhang & Blanchard, 2022). By focusing on individuals challenging the leadership’s integrity, the manipulation seeks to reinforce the narrative that criticisms against the CCP lack foundation, contributing to political stability and preserving the party’s legitimacy.


The state assumes a pivotal role in shaping the historical narrative and asserting political authority, utilizing media as crucial state apparatuses in the ongoing national discourse on representation, particularly in areas related to identity, interests, and ideology (Pan, Lee, Chan & So, 2001). Through the analysis of CCP-manipulated tweets on Hong Kong issues, this project identifies a significant feature of Chinese manipulated information and propaganda, which is nationalism (Zhao, 2004; Zhang & Xu, 2023). This is manifested through the positive framing of Hong Kong policemen and the government’s actions in Hong Kong, juxtaposed with negative portrayals of opponents and Western countries. Notably, the primary target of Chinese manipulated information and propaganda on Twitter remains individuals critical of Chinese leaders. In summary, Chinese manipulated information and propaganda employ a diverse toolbox and nuanced measures, encompassing focused theme selection, sentiment mobilization, audience targeting, and distraction to shape public opinion.


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[1] See BBC News {https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-54056356}
Topic revision: r1 - 22 Feb 2024, DechunZhang
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