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Army of fake fans online boosts China’s global messaging

Associated Press

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China’s ruling Communist Party has opened a new front in its long, ambitious war to shape global public opinion: Western social media.

Liu Xiaoming, who recently stepped down as China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, is one of the party’s most successful foot soldiers on this evolving online battlefield. He joined Twitter in October 2019, as scores of Chinese diplomats surged onto Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.

Since then, Liu has deftly elevated his public profile, gaining a following of more than 119,000 as he transformed himself into an exemplar of China’s new sharp-edged “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term borrowed from the title of a top-grossing Chinese action movie.

“As I see it, there are so-called ‘wolf warriors’ because there are ‘wolfs’ in the world and you need warriors to fight them,” Liu, who is now China’s Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs, tweeted in February.

His stream of posts — principled and gutsy ripostes to Western anti-Chinese bias to his fans, aggressive bombast to his detractors — were retweeted more than 43,000 times from Jun. through Feb. alone.

But much of the popular support Liu and many of his colleagues seem to enjoy on Twitter has, in fact, been manufactured.

A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people — often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.

More than half the retweets Liu got from June through January came from accounts that Twitter has suspended for violating the platform’s rules, which prohibit manipulation. Overall, more than one in ten of the retweets 189 Chinese diplomats got in that time frame came from accounts that Twitter had suspended by Mar. 1.

But Twitter’s suspensions did not stop the pro-China amplification machine. An additional cluster of fake accounts, many of them impersonating U.K. citizens, continued to push Chinese government content, racking up over 16,000 retweets and replies before Twitter permanently suspended them for platform manipulation late last month and early this month, in response to the AP and Oxford Internet Institute’s investigation.

This fiction of popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support. It can also distort platform algorithms, which are designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda. While individual fake accounts may not seem impactful on their own, over time and at scale, such networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of China’s messaging.

“You have a seismic, slow but large continental shift in narratives,” said Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology who studies social networks. “Steer it just a little bit over time, it can have massive impact.”

Twitter, and others, have identified inauthentic pro-China networks before. But the AP and Oxford Internet Institute investigation shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has broadly driven engagement across official government and state media accounts, adding to evidence that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion — covertly, if necessary — extends beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests, like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Twitter’s takedowns often came only after weeks or months of activity. All told, AP and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended. They accounted for a significant share — sometimes more than half — of the total retweets many diplomatic accounts got on Twitter.

It was not possible to determine whether the accounts were sponsored by the Chinese government.

Twitter told AP that many of the accounts had been sanctioned for manipulation, but declined to offer details on what other platform violations may have been at play. Twitter said it was investigating whether the activity was a state-affiliated information operation.

“We will continue to investigate and action accounts that violate our platform manipulation policy, including accounts associated with these networks,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “If we have clear evidence of state-affiliated information operations, our first priority is to enforce our rules and remove accounts engaging in this behavior. When our investigations are complete, we disclose all accounts and content in our public archive.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it does not employ trickery on social media. “There is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor exporting a model of online public opinion guidance,” the ministry said in a statement to AP. “We hope that the relevant parties will abandon their discriminatory attitude, take off their tinted glasses, and take a peaceful, objective and rational approach in the spirit of openness and inclusiveness.”


BRUSSELS (AP) — By ERIKA KINETZ Associated Press.

Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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Gains for some tech giants nudge S&P to another record high

Associated Press

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Tech S&P

Technology companies helped lift stocks higher on Wall Street, nudging the S&P 500 to its third straight all-time high, even as other parts of the market faltered.

A burst of buying in the final 10 minutes of trading sent the benchmark index 0.2% higher. The S&P 500 had been down 0.3% earlier amid another bout of choppy trading as Wall Street awaits the latest take from the Federal Reserve on inflation.

Investors are trying to gauge the strength of the economic recovery and whether emerging signs of inflation will be transitory, as the central bank believes. The Fed delivers its interest rate policy update Wednesday afternoon.

“Most of this is just positioning in front of the Fed later this week,” said Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at All Star Charts. Investors are “trying to get a sense of not just what the Fed is going to say in terms of announcements, but what they expect in terms of the path of monetary policy and the economy going forward.”

The S&P 500 added 7.71 points to 4,255.15. The index has notched a weekly gain three weeks in a row. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 85.85 points, or 0.2%, to 34,393.75. The Nasdaq rose 104.72 points, or 0.7%, to 14,174.14.

Small-company stocks fell. The Russell 2000 index lost 9.66 points, or 0.4%, to 2,326.15.

Among the tech sector winners Monday were Apple, which rose 2.5%, and Adobe, which gained 2.9%. Several large communications companies also made gains. Facebook rose 1.7% and Netflix gained 2.3%. Those gains offset a broad decline in financial, industrial and materials stocks, among others. JPMorgan dropped 1.7%.

Wall Street is trying to gauge the strength of the economic recovery, the impact rising inflation is having on its trajectory, and the Fed’s next move.

Investors have been worried that the Fed could ease up on bond purchases and other stimulus measures as the economy recovers. No policy changes are expected immediately, but comments on a shift in policy could jostle an already skittish market.

Fed officials have maintained that any rise in inflation will be temporary as the economy recovers.

“There’s still this debate on inflation and, notwithstanding what the Fed does and whether yields move down, there’s still some upward pricing pressure,” said Tom Martin, senior portfolio manager with Globalt Investments.

A boost in demand for goods has helped fuel a rise in the cost of everything from food to cars and household goods. Shipping costs are also rising and adding to the increase in prices. The uncertainty over inflation has been fueling much of the back-and-forth in the market between stocks that are considered safer value holdings versus those with more potential for sharp growth.

“As you go into the summer and you have uncertainty about inflation, the fed and the stimulus, you’ll kind of see people neutralizing bets,” Martin said.

Lordstown Motors sank 18.8% after the CEO and CFO resigned as problems mount for the startup electric truck maker.

Novavax gave up an early gain, dropping 0.9%. The vaccine maker said its COVID-19 shot was highly effective against the disease and also protected against variants in a large study in the U.S. and Mexico. The company is facing raw-material shortages, though, and plans to seek authorization for the shots by the end of September.

Bond prices fell, sending yields mostly higher. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.50% from 1.46% late Friday.

“You don’t get a message from the bond market that it’s worried either about persistent inflation or about the Fed doing something dramatic in terms of not being the buyer of bonds that it has been in recent quarters,” Delwiche said.

European markets were mostly higher. Several markets in Asia were closed for a holiday.


By DAMIAN J. TROISE and ALEX VEIGA AP Business Writers

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Google Announces Google Workspace for Everyone

Inside Telecom Staff

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Google Workspace

Google announced on Monday a series of updates that build upon its vision to deliver a single, integrated communication and collaboration solution to everyone via Google Workspace.

Now, all of the company’s three billion-plus existing users across consumer, enterprise, and education have access to the full Google Workspace experience, including Gmail, Chat, Calendar, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Meet and more.        

In addition to offering Google Workspace to everyone, the company announced new innovations that address the specific challenges and opportunities of the hybrid work world:

  • The evolution of Rooms in Google Chat to Spaces
  • A new individual subscription offer: Google Workspace Individual
  • New enhancements to Google Meet that enable collaboration equity
  • New security and privacy capabilities across Google Workspace

“Collaboration doesn’t stop at the workplace – our products have been optimized for broad participation, sharing and helpfulness since the beginning,” said Javier Soltero, VP and GM, Google Workspace. “Our focus is on delivering consumers, workers, teachers and students alike an equitable approach to collaboration, while still providing flexibility that allows these different subsets of users to take their own approach to communication and collaboration.”

“With this update, Google Workspace is creating a new competitive advantage by optimizing for a single, connected experience across its products that it is extending to consumers and individual business owners, to align with the experience that its enterprise and education subscribers benefit from today,” Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst, Moor Insights & Strategy, said in a statement.

Google Workspace for everyone

Every day, the world’s most innovative companies, schools and nonprofits use Google Workspace to transform how people work and achieve more together.

It’s a daily part of how leading healthcare providers revolutionize patient care, schools turn remote learning into an immersive, personalized experience, and aerospace companies rethink flight. Starting today, Google Workspace is available to anyone with a Google account, meaning friends, family, or groups of any kind can stay connected, work together, and share helpful information in a single space.

For example, you can organize a junior sports league with ease, take that fundraiser to the next level, or even turn a hobby into a business. Starting today, users can enable the integrated experience in Google Workspace by turning on Google Chat in Gmail.

Connecting content and people in powerful ways

With the introduction of Spaces, the Rooms experience in Google Chat will evolve into a dedicated place for organizing people, topics, and projects in Google Workspace. “Over the summer, we’ll evolve Rooms to become Spaces and launch a streamlined and flexible user interface that helps teams and individuals stay on top of everything that’s important,” a statement by the search engine said.

Powered by new features like in-line topic threading, presence indicators, custom statuses, expressive reactions, and a collapsible view, Spaces will seamlessly integrate with files and tasks, becoming a new home in Google Workspace for getting more done—together.

Spaces will also provide a place to fuel knowledge sharing and community building for teams of all sizes, where all the relevant information, conversations, and files for a project can be organized, and where topics—even at the organization level—can be intelligently moderated.

With the ability to pin messages where everyone can see them, Spaces will play a crucial role in helping people stay connected and informed.

Google Workspace Individual

Google Workspace is also launching Workspace Individual, a powerful, easy-to-use solution that was built to help individual business owners grow, run, and protect their business. This new subscription offering provides premium capabilities, including smart booking services, professional video meetings and personalized email marketing, with much more on the way.

Within their existing Google account, subscribers can easily manage all their personal and professional commitments from one place with access to Google support to get the most out of their solution.

Workspace Individual is rolling out soon to six markets, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil, and Japan.

A single, connected experience

As businesses move to a hybrid work environment, the importance of creating secure collaboration spaces and fostering human connection has never been more important. Because Google Workspace was designed to fuel anywhere, anytime collaboration, it’s now helping millions of organizations navigate the challenges and opportunities of the newly emerging work model.

Customers are using Google Workspace to rethink virtual meetings, provide people with modern tools to stay connected and manage their time and attention, and double down on security and privacy.

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Apple reaffirms privacy stance amid Trump probe revelations

Associated Press

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Seeking to protect its image as a guardian of personal privacy, Apple maintains it was blindsided and handcuffed by a Trump administration probe that resulted in the company handing over phone data from two Democratic congressmen.

Apple delivered its version of events Friday in response to news reports detailing the U.S. Justice Department’s aggressive attempts to use its legal power to identify leaks tied to an investigation into former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

The Justice Department was able to persuade a federal grand jury to issue a subpoena that culminated in Apple turning over the metadata — information that can include general records of calls and texts — about House Intelligence Committee members Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats, during 2018. Both lawmakers were key figures on the committee looking into Trump’s connections with Russia; Schiff is now the panel’s chair.

Neither Schiff and Swalwell knew some of the information had been seized until May 5, after a series of gag orders had finally expired, according to the company.

The revelation of Apple’s compliance with the subpoena emerged at a time when the company has been ramping up efforts to frame privacy as “fundamental human right” in its marketing campaigns. Apple also upped the privacy ante in April when it rolled out privacy controls on the iPhone as part of an effort to make it more difficult for companies such as Facebook to track people’s online activities to help sell ads.

In a statement, Apple emphasized it will continue to fight unjustified legal demands for personal information and keep customers informed about them.

But in this instance, Apple said it was constrained by a nondisclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge and said it had no information about the nature of the investigation.

“It would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts,” the Cupertino, California, company said. “Consistent with the request, Apple limited the information it provided to account subscriber information and did not provide any content such as emails or pictures.”

Apple also believes other technology companies may have been confronted with similar legal demands, based on the broad nature of the request it received for “customer or subscriber account information” spanning 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses.

It remains unclear how many other companies may have been swept up in the Trump administration’s attempt to track down leakers.

In a statement, Microsoft acknowledged receiving at least one subpoena in 2017 related to a personal email account. It said it notified the customer after the gag order expired and learned that the person was a congressional staff member. “We will continue to aggressively seek reform that imposes reasonable limits on government secrecy in cases like this,” the company said.

Privacy experts were more troubled by the U.S. laws that allowed the Justice Department to secretly obtain the subpoenas and then keep them under wraps for years than by Apple’s limited compliance with the demands.

The subpoenas represent a “a quintessential example of government abuse” that ensnared Apple, said Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“It’s very difficult to challenge these types of subpoenas, but it’s not impossible,” Butler said. “And if there ever was one worth challenging, it might have been these.”

Apple’s response to the subpoena doesn’t necessarily contradict its stance on the sanctity of personal privacy, said Cindy Cohn, executive director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. That’s because Apple privacy commitments mostly revolve around shielding its customers from online surveillance.

She thinks the bigger issue is why U.S. law allows a grand jury to issue a subpoena and then block Apple from alerting the affected people.

“The overall secrecy of this is troubling, especially since it appears to have all been a politically motivated investigation,” Cohn said.

Apple has a history of fighting legal requests, most notably in 2016 when the Justice Department sought to force Apple to unlock the iPhone owned by one of the killers in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Apple refused to cooperate, contending it would open a digital backdoor that would pose threats to the security and privacy of all iPhone users. The legal showdown ended when the FBI hired another firm to unlock the iPhone connected to the shooting.

“Apple really put its money where its mouth is that time,” Butler said.


SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP) — By MICHAEL LIEDTKE AP Technology Writer.

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