PRC online misinformation campaign against Hong Kong protesters exposed
Twitter and Facebook shut down thousands of accounts in mid-August 2019 that were part of a People’s Republic of China (PRC) operation to manipulate online conversations against the Hong Kong protesters and suppress their calls for political change, according to statements released by the companies.
Twitter closed 936 active accounts that it deemed were part of the PRC’s efforts to coordinate a misinformation campaign via fake accounts on its platform. Twitter also shut down another 200,000 accounts that it said were created to support the operation through a “spammy network.” Meanwhile, Facebook closed five accounts, seven pages and three groups on its platform that it deemed fake and linked to the anti-protester operation, according to statements released by the companies.
“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. Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” Twitter said in an August 19, 2019, statement. “Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests.”
The fake posts, which were made under the guise of normal U.S. citizens, promoted PRC propaganda initiatives and labeled the protesters as “terrorists” and “cockroaches,” according to The Washington Postnewspaper.
Daniel Sinclair, an independent social media researcher based in New York, said the PRC’s online influencing campaigns have intensified in Western nations likely due to growing anxiety over how the PRC is perceived,The Washington Postreported. That concern has been apparently elevated amid PRC coercive behaviors, such as its reported use of excessive force in Hong Kong.
(Pictured: Medical staff members hold placards during an August 13, 2019, picket at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong denouncing police brutality during recent anti-government protests.)
“This Chinese nationalism that is spreading across American and Western social media — much of it isn’t true disinformation as we understand it, but a lot of it is backed by actual state propaganda and fake news,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen their media machine working at this scale. … With social media, China has new kinds of influence, and new fingers in the Western media, that they haven’t had before.”
In addition to the fake account operations, the PRC purchased promoted tweets to try to portray the protesters as violent, according to TechCrunch, a U.S. online publication covering technology.
PRC officials sidestepped the allegations by Twitter and Facebook and claimed the PRC has a right to put out messaging on these platforms, which are available in Hong Kong, Reuters reported. Social media platforms such as Renren and Weibo, which are tightly controlled by the state, are widely available in China.
Although the PRC blocks Twitter and Facebook as well as other U.S. social media platforms in China, it wants to control the message on these platforms outside of its nation in English and in Chinese. The PRC runs the top four media outlets worldwide with the greatest followings on Facebook, according to an April 2019 analysis by The Economistmagazine. CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily and Xinhua, which are all news outlets operated by the Chinese government, are the top news sites globally on Facebook, as ranked by the number of followers. The PRC has been caught engaging in other activities to manipulate content on various social media platforms worldwide. In March 2019, Facebook sued four Chinese companies for selling fake Facebook and Instagram accounts, likes and followers, according to court filings.
The companies offer assorted services, including bundles of phony accounts for Facebook and Instagram and other platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, LinkedIn and Google Voice, the complaint said. They also advertise services “designed to increase likes, comments, friends, and other activity,” TechCrunch reported. They also use false marketing materials, The Verge, a technology news website, reported.
“The Chinese government has built an entire infrastructure to support its efforts at information control, through a combination of censorship and disinformation,” U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “And it’s exporting both the technology and ideas information control to authoritarian regimes around the world.”
U.S. companies, under pressure from U.S. citizens and government officials, have increased their commitment to detect and dismantle forms of online manipulation in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Facebook and Instagram disabled 2.1 billion fake accounts between January and September 2018, the Facebook complaint said, but that may have been just the beginning. “By filing the lawsuit, we hope to reinforce that this kind of fraudulent activity is not tolerated — and that we’ll act forcefully to protect the integrity of our platform,” Facebook said in its March 2019 statement.
Similarly, Twitter said in its August statement, “Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place in our service… we are committed to understanding and combating how bad-faith actors use our services.”