Bots, Right Wings and Radicals: How did the fake news about Chinese restaurants being burned in Kazakhstan spread on social media

The events that happened in the Kordai district of Kazakhstan gave an impetus to the dissemination of fake information amongst the foreign segments of social-networking websites, especially on Twitter. A considerable number of people suffered and eventually died (as per sources 10). Besides that, thousands of citizens were forced to flee, to Kyrgyzstan.

Fakes claim that pogroms and arsons of Chinese restaurants and houses began in Kazakhstan as a result of panic, over the spread of Coronavirus in the country. Some reports also claim that such events led to the death of a Kazakhstani from Coronavirus.

We collected accessible information about the accounts that distributed fake news and tried to figure out what goals they pursued and tried to trace the origin of the attack.

Chronology

The first information and video claiming how unrest began in the Zhambyl region, appeared at around 22:00 hours in the evening, on the 7th of February. After 7 hours, at around 5 in the morning (Almaty-time), videos of pogroms in Kordai began to be distributed almost simultaneously on Twitter.

The description, however, said that Kazakhstanis burned and smashed Chinese restaurants and homes because of the spread of coronavirus in the country.

According to measurements by The Union Metrics: -On Saturday, February the 9th, tweets had already amassed over 205,000 original users.

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Viral videos also gained up to one hundred and sixty thousand views and there were more than a thousand retweets in total, regarding the same. 

Alongside tweets in English; posts started appearing in French, Spanish, German and Chinese.

https://twitter.com/Conflits_FR/status/1225916162137038848

To make things worse, such news was taken for the truth by some journalists, bloggers and, researchers.

By Saturday evening, 9th of February, the story behind ruthless pogroms in Kazakhstan around coronavirus, was issued by Al Jazeera.

Distribution of such fake information and news was also aided through YouTube, Periscope and, Telegram.

Right-wing radicals and Chinese bots. Which account(s) were behind the distribution of the fakes?

Presumably, the first fake-news tweet was posted from @sotiridi’s Twitter account. Account holder Sotiri Dimpinoudis describes himself as a ‘Greek expat born in Belgium’ and a freelance journalist, but not a single article signed in his name was found.
Cases where his name is mentioned, link to an account on Twitter. He was mainly referred to, by the right-wing anonymous media, as well as by the Russian media, including Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestia, Lenta.ru, Sputnik, as well as some Ukrainian and Kazakh publications, for example-Tengrinews.kz

We sent a request to the account owner to enquire about the source of this news, but we did not receive any response whatsoever.

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@Sotiri’s tweet has become one of the most viral tweets. Using the link, you can see the distribution scheme of the tweet from the account.

A profile with that name can be found on the Dutch Everybodywiki. It states that Sotiri is a gamer who has been involved in politics, since 2015. He adheres to the right-winged views, like the view on the position of refugees from Syria where he believes that Europe should not let in any refugees.

https://twitter.com/Conflits_FR/status/1225916162137038848

Later, it was possible to determine that some of the fakes were also distributed by right-wing radicals from Europe, the USA and even by India.

The broadcast on Periscope was conducted by the ‘NewWorldofTheTime’ account, promoting right-wing radicalism and Trump.Similar ideas were distributed by accounts that posted fakes in other languages ​​and on Telegram as well. For instance, in German, it is @deutsch365 – calling itself an account of the new political movement for a free Europe.

Other examples:

Telegram: Dawkins

Additionally, fake news appeared on several sites that also advocate anti-Chinese and right-wing radical views.

https://twitter.com/Mummu_Ami/status/1225923909104656385

On the other hand, fakes were distributed by accounts with a pro-Chinese agenda.

A thorough content analysis of tweets reveals how fake news in Kazakhstan has underlying tones of theAnti-Chinese sentiment or racism and how the visit of the US Secretary of the State Michael Pompeo, has influenced Central Asia. We pumped out more than 100 accounts that posted the original content clubbed with fakes and checked through the Botometr service: -the use of automatically generated tweets. Furthermore, verification shows us that at least a third of the accounts are bots.

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(Evaluation takes place on a five-point scale – from 0 to 5, the higher the score, the higher the probability)

An example of using a bot to generate a tweet.

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The third segment of fake accounts is real people and the media, including some researchers, scholars, and the International media.

Summary

A total of three different groups participated in spreading the fake news of Kazakhstan burning Chinese restaurants and houses, due to the coronavirus outbreak; right-wing European, pro-Russian and fascist groups, pro-Chinese accounts – each of the groups interpreted the fake news in their favour. Researchers and Media did not lag behind either.

At least 30% of the tweets were generated using neural networks and at least half were written by bot accounts.

Fake distribution is still going on.

Асем Жапишева
Асем Жапишева — журналист, медиатренер и гражданская активистка. В 2018 году окончила универстет Кардиффа по специальности MBA Media Management, с 2019 ведет независимые проекты, включая MUSA и «Тіл кеспек жоқ»