Social media companies Twitter and Facebook announced this week they had taken action against suspected fake Chinese accounts that were attempting to disrupt the months-long protests in Hong Kong. On Monday, Twitter said it had suspended more than 200,000 accounts the company believes are part of the Chinese government’s influence campaign attempting to derail the popular pro-democracy protests that have brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. The fake accounts were pushing and amplifying narratives that praised the police crackdown on the protests, criticized the demonstrators, and accused vague Western forces of fomenting the unrest.
“Overall, these accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter said in a blog post. “Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.” Twitter also announced it was banning ads on the site from state-backed media companies that, such as was the case with the state-controlled Russian RT media network, can serve the same propaganda-pushing purposes as bots.
“After being notified by Twitter and conducting its own investigation, Facebook said Monday that it has also removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts, including some portraying protesters as cockroaches and terrorists,” the Associated Press reports. “Facebook, which is more widely used in Hong Kong, does not release data on such state-backed influence operations. Neither does it ban ads from state-owned media companies.” For a sense of scale and potential influence, the market research firm eMarketer puts the number of Twitter users in Hong Kong at approximately 448,000 people, while there are 4.7 million Facebook users that log on each month. From the AP:
Twitter traced the Hong Kong campaign to two fake Chinese and English Twitter accounts that pretended to be news organizations based in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrators have taken to the streets since early June calling for full democracy and an inquiry into what they say is police violence against protesters. Though Twitter is banned in China, it is available in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region. The Chinese language account, @HKpoliticalnew, and the English account, @ctcc507, pushed tweets depicting protesters as violent criminals in a campaign aimed at influencing public opinion around the world. One of those accounts was tied to a suspended Facebook account that went by the same moniker: HKpoliticalnew.
“The new takedowns by Facebook and Twitter reflect the extent to which disinformation has become a global scourge, far surpassing the once-secret efforts of Russian agents to stoke social unrest in the United States during the 2016 presidential election,” the Washington Post notes. “Researchers recently have pointed to similar campaigns linked to Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela, efforts aimed at shaping discussions on social media beyond their borders.”