China’s disinformation on Hong Kong protests is on Twitter and Facebook

This is real.
This is real.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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China’s efforts to control the narrative about Hong Kong’s protests have gone from censorship to state-run reports that appear aimed at fanning public anger (paywall) against the demonstrators. And that disinformation has also made its way to Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter on Monday (Aug. 19) said it had found “a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement.” It’s suspended 936 accounts originating from within China that “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.” It also created an archive of the accounts for further research.

Twitter’s announcement came after a thread from Maciej Cegłowski, the outspoken developer behind the @Pinboard Twitter account, as well as news reports, which flagged promoted messages from Chinese state-run news media such as Xinhua showing up in users’ feeds. Twitter is blocked in China, but the platform said that some of the accounts were using unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China.

Twitter also said it was updating its advertising policies to stop taking ads from state-controlled news media; the policy will not apply to publicly funded but independent news broadcasters. In recent years, as Chinese state news media have expanded overseas, governments and platforms have grappled with whether to treat them as press entities—or foreign agents.

Facebook also announced Monday, based on a tip from Twitter, that it had removed seven pages, three groups, and five accounts linked to “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on the Hong Kong protests.

One of the suspended Twitter accounts targeting the Hong Kong protest movement.
One of the suspended Twitter accounts.
Image: Twitter

The 11 weeks of mass protests in Hong Kong began in June against an extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China to face trial, and have been largely peaceful up until last week. In a protest at the airport, demonstrators tied up and beat two men believed to be undercover mainland agents, an incident that has prompted soul-searching in the leaderless movement in recent days, and apologies from demonstrators. One turned out to be a reporter for the Chinese state-run tabloid, Global Times.

Protesters (and innocent bystanders) have also faced violence from groups of thugs, and been arrested by undercover police dressed as protesters.

State-run media have been actively shaping how people in mainland China, where access to most overseas news sites is blocked by a firewall, see Hong Kong’s protest.

Soon after one of the largest anti-extradition protests in June, China Daily reported instead on the supposedly large numbers of people that were voicing support for the proposed extradition bill. Chinese news reports have also accused foreign “black hands” of instigating the protests. More recently state-run news media shared a poem that riffed off First They Came, the famous words written by German pastor Martin Niemöller about complicity with Nazi rule, to criticize the Hong Kong protesters.

While many efforts are explicitly state-linked, other groups, including the patriotic forum Di Ba, and members of China’s “fan girl” community, have also crossed the firewall to express their love of China and criticize the protesters.