Troll toll still felt months after purge of propaganda accounts targeting Hong Kong, firm says

An artist’s rendering of social media trolls. Photo Illustration by Coconuts Hong Kong.
An artist’s rendering of social media trolls. Photo Illustration by Coconuts Hong Kong.

Mankind’s centuries-long war on trolls ain’t over yet, with anti-protester propaganda continuing to circulate on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube despite an effort this year to purge propaganda accounts linked to the Chinese government, Bloomberg reports.

Citing research by the firm Astroscreen — which monitors so-called “astroturfing,” or the misleading use of social media to create the impression of grassroots support — the outlet reported that new troll accounts employing similar tactics have sprouted up in the wake of the social media giants’ purge.

According to the company’s analysis of 30,000 anti-protester accounts, roughly one in three was created between August and October, after the mass removals. Of those, many exhibit signs of being inauthentic: they have fewer than 10 followers, use generic photos, and post predominantly in English in an apparent attempt to influence global opinion, said Astroscreen’s Donara Barojan.

The accounts reinforce a communist party line, alleging, for instance, that the protests are a Western- or US-backed plot, in a bid to “discredit the protest movement” and play to existing anti-American sentiment, Bloomberg quoted Barojan as saying.

“It creates a false consensus, a key tactic of propaganda actors.”

Cybersecurity firms FireEye and Nisos reported similar findings.

The hydra-like resurgence of the questionable accounts comes just a few months after Twitter identified and suspended a core of nearly 1,000 China-linked accounts that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong,” along with a “larger, spammy network” of some 200,000 other accounts appearing to working in tandem with the core accounts to amplify their messages.

Facebook and YouTube reportedly similar discoveries at the time.

However, the Astroscreen researchers cautioned that definitively linking the latest activity back to specific actors, like the Chinese government, is difficult without more information.

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