China’s messaging against the Hong Kong protests has found a new outlet: Pornhub

Finding new channels.
Finding new channels.
Image: AP
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As Twitter, Facebook and YouTube shut down accounts spreading China’s narrative about the Hong Kong protests overseas, resourceful patriots are putting their videos on another extremely popular platform: the world’s biggest porn site.

Beijing has been waging a disinformation campaign against Hong Kong’s protests since June, when the city began to see mass protests sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill. Chinese state-owned media outlets have depicted the protesters as violent separatists advocating independence, although that is not a key demand among protest participants, who have been calling for greater democracy and an inquiry into police brutality. As the disinformation efforts extended to overseas platforms—often quite clumsily—first Twitter announced it was suspending tens of thousands of accounts, followed by Facebook and YouTube, which shut down 210 channels that posted videos about Hong Kong in a way that suggested a “coordinated influence operation.”

Shu Chang, a Chinese online commentator with over 3 million followers on Chinese social media platform Weibo, said in a post (link in Chinese) on Tuesday (Nov. 12)  that she and other internet users had uploaded a number of propaganda videos on Pornhub after being unable to put them on YouTube.

“YouTube would not allow us to upload those videos so we have no other way but to post the videos to Pornhub,” said Shu. While Shu did not identify the videos she and other users had uploaded, searches by Quartz on Wednesday (Nov. 13) for phrases like “Hong Kong rioters” found at least a dozen recently uploaded videos. Since Pornhub and other porn platforms are blocked in China amid a crackdown on “spiritual pollution,” users would need to use a virtual private network to leap the great firewall and access it.

Six of them were from a channel named “CCYL_central” that joined three months ago, and has so far uploaded 11 videos in all. Its videos on Hong Kong ranged from Hong Kong citizens expressing their praise for Hong Kong police, to news clips from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV condemning the protesters for violent behavior. The channel describes its acronym as standing for the Chinese Communist Youth League—but it’s unlikely to be actually affiliated with the youth wing of the Communist Party. The channel, which said its favorite book is one written by Chinese president Xi Jinping on politics, has so far garnered 9,000 views and 32 subscribers.

PornHub China
The bio page of CCYL_central on Pornhub.
Image: screengrab

Another account shared six videos, mostly about how protesters are advocating for Hong Kong independence and praising Chinese students overseas for clashing with Hong Kong “separatists.”

And a handle called “John97,”—an account that was only registered yesterday—reposted a single graphic video that had been earlier shared on YouTube by Nathan Rich, an American living in China who creates videos that counter criticism of China. The video has been viewed 3,000 times on the platform.

The video titled “Rioters (Cockroach) in Hong Kong,”—a term Hong Kong police have been using for protesters—used a deeply tragic incident that occurred yesterday (Nov. 12) to condemn the Hong Kong movement. A video that circulated on Tuesday had shown a man being set on fire after arguing with protesters. Hong Kong police confirmed the attack, which drew criticism in the city and calls for the protesters to distance themselves from such actions.

“Chinese people are at risk of being burned alive if they dare to disagree with the fascist right-wingers in Hong Kong,” said Rich in the video, calling the protesters “terrorists.”

While there have been incidents of protesters attacking people perceived to be pro-China as months of peaceful protests took a more violent turn in recent months, they have been rare. The city has also seen a series of violent attacks on pro-democracy figures.

PornHub China
A screenshot of a video on Pornhub condemning Hong Kong protesters.
Image: screengrab

It’s not the first time in the protests a porn site has played an unexpected role. Some of the suspended Twitter accounts believed to be part of a China influence campaign were earlier tweeting porn. And in June, Hong Kong porn site ThisAV urged its users to attend protests against the controversial bill.

Update: Blake White, Pornhub’s vice president, said in a statement Nov. 14 that the site had “reviewed and removed the videos as soon as we were made aware of them for violating Pornhub’s Terms of Service.”