China Report is MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
A growing number of Twitter accounts have been impersonating outspoken Chinese intellectuals or celebrities. Their posts, which frequently criticize the Chinese government, often draw hundreds of thousands of followers before the deception is publicly exposed.
Though Twitter has been banned in China since 2009, more Chinese users have been accessing the platform with VPN tools in recent years. While that sometimes makes the platform an important information hub, like during the covid protests that I wrote about last year, it’s also become a place rife with spam, scams, and content farms. It only got worse as the platform tuned down its moderation efforts under Elon Musk’s reign.
But the emergence of accounts that impersonate Chinese celebrities who don’t have a Twitter presence—likely to farm followers—is a new trend this year.
Edgar Lu, a Chinese-American YouTuber who’s been active on Twitter since 2019, first noticed it happening late last year. He saw a new account that purported to be from Luo Xiang, a Chinese law professor who gained a national following for his lectures on criminal law. Luo, who is adored by his audience for the knowledge and moral principles that he teaches, is often seen as a symbol of justice on social media.
The account on Twitter shared Luo’s name, used his photo as an avatar, and often commented on similar topics to those Luo would discuss in his lectures. But for Lu, a big fan of the professor, the account’s anti-government content smelled fishy. “As such an influential figure in China, read by tens of millions of followers, how could Luo Xiang post such explicit [anti-government] speeches on Twitter?” he asks. “Many people were worried for him. Why could Luo Xiang write this without any trouble from the police?”
His suspicion was confirmed in December, when an acquaintance of the professor made a public statement that Luo doesn’t have a Twitter account.
This heavy political talk is a feature of many similar impersonator accounts. One reason, Lu suggests, could be that content critical of the Chinese government has attracted more traffic and followers than other types, so the impersonators are going all in on such material to maximize their reach.
Since then, the fake Luo account has changed its avatar to a statue of the Roman goddess of justice, yet the name remains the same. The account has racked up 96,000 followers, and many still think it is operated by the professor himself.
Similarly, another account pulled over 100,000 followers by pretending to be Chen Danqing, a Chinese-American artist and writer. That account was publicly exposed in May after it tweeted out a made-up conversation with an account allegedly from China’s security department. On June 1, it suddenly deleted all its tweets, changed its name and handle, and turned into a soft-core porn account selling access to OnlyFans-like subscriber groups.
It’s hard to know the ultimate motive of these accounts, but the overnight transition shows that at least one goal of such content farming is to cash out. Posting paid advertisements or selling the account outright can amount to a lucrative business.
If a fake account fails to attract a following, it can simply choose a new identity and start another impersonating adventure. That’s what happened with one registered in March that alleged to be Fang Bin, a Chinese national who was detained for three years for sharing information about covid’s impact in the early months. By May, the account had only around 8,000 followers, so it abandoned this identity, cycled through a few other attempts (including “Anti-CCP Online User Alliance” and “Singaporean Delicious Food”), and settled on Cui Chenghao, a mysterious ethnic Korean blogger in China who has nearly 5 million followers on Weibo.
The whole process has been documented by other users keeping track of the impersonator’s unique Twitter ID, which stays the same regardless of changes to its name and handle. The last identity has been more successful than the previous ones, securing this account 20,000 additional followers.
After the account of Luo Xiang was confirmed as fake, Lu tried to call for people to unfollow and report it, but reporting for impersonation usually requires the victim to have a real presence on Twitter. In most of these cases, the victims have little incentive to register a Twitter account just to clear their name, and reporting almost never works. Twitter responded to a request for comment with its now-standard poop emoji.
Twitter has never been effective at moderating content that’s not in English, but the situation appears to have worsened since the moderation teams were laid off after Musk took over. Last year, Chinese spam bots spread so widely that people suspected they had the Chinese government’s support, but it was more likely just spammers trying to make money.
While they don’t pose much direct threat to the audience or to the person they pretend to be, these content farms are muddying the ecosystem of Chinese-language social media platforms, Lu says. By adopting clickbait—which in China often means political content—to gain followers, they are polarizing the discourse in Chinese.
What other fake Chinese celebrities have you spotted or suspected on Twitter? Let me know at email@example.com.
Catch up with China
1. The Wall Street Journal had a juicy story last week about China’s plan to pay Cuba billions of dollars to set up an eavesdropping facility on the island. (Wall Street Journal $)
- China outright denied it. (Reuters $)
- The White House, after initially rejecting the news, now says China has had a spy station in Cuba since 2019. (Politico)
2. A Chinese man living in Japan is behind a network of criminals in East Asia groping women in public, filming it, and selling the video online for profits. (BBC)
3. The Dutch government and universities will screen Chinese students for security risks if they have received scholarships funded by the Chinese government. (Financial Times $)
4. The Hong Kong court now needs to decide whether its government can ban a protest anthem from being distributed online. (New York Times $)
5. The leader of Chechnya posted a video on social media, touting Chinese-built armored vehicles. Now people are questioning whether China has armed Russia for the war. (Wall Street Journal $)
6. China just asked the last Indian journalist in the country to leave—after India ejected every Chinese journalist earlier. (Bloomberg $)
Lost in translation
Four years after pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong, thousands of protesters are still in legal limbo. As the Singapore-based Chinese outlet The Initium reported, of the 10,279 people arrested in the protests in Hong Kong, over 6,500 have been released on bail but have not had their cases closed. This means they’ve been living in constant fear that the police can summon them anytime and file official charges. They have been allowed to travel internationally, but many still fear they could get into trouble at the borders because of their status.
As international attention to the Hong Kong protests waned, support groups that formed around jailed protesters have slowly disbanded, and many people in their friend circles are considering emigration. But for the protesters themselves, there’s no end in sight. In May, the new Hong Kong chief executive refused to give a timeline for concluding the investigations, calling it “unrealistic.”
One more thing
On June 15—the 70th birthday of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who’s a well-known soccer fan—Beijing will be hosting a friendly match between the national soccer teams of Argentina and Australia. But even Lionel Messi, the Argentinian star, needed to learn his lessons about Chinese border control. A citizen of both Argentina and Spain, he reportedly took the wrong passport—which didn’t match his visa—and ended up being held at the airport for a few hours, according to Chinese state media.
Humans and technology
Enabling enterprise growth with data intelligence
It's becoming more critical for organizations to organize data and put data infrastructure at the forefront of their data strategy, says Bharti Patel, SVP of product engineering at Hitachi Vantara.
AI gains momentum in core manufacturing services functions
More use cases means customers and employees experience AI’s ability to automate tasks, prioritize work, and empower the user.
AI-powered 6G networks will reshape digital interactions
The convergence of AI and communication technologies will create 6G networks that make hyperconnectivity and immersive experiences an everyday reality for consumers.
Customer experience horizons
The big ideas that define the future of customer and employee experience.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.