Twitter, Facebook disclose massive, China-backed disinformation campaign on Hong Kong

Fake Facebook (left) and Twitter (right) posts likening protesters to terrorists and claiming foreign influence in Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy movement. Both were flagged as part of a China-backed disinformation campaign. Photos via Facebook/Twitter.
Fake Facebook (left) and Twitter (right) posts likening protesters to terrorists and claiming foreign influence in Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy movement. Both were flagged as part of a China-backed disinformation campaign. Photos via Facebook/Twitter.

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have disclosed the existence of a massive, state-backed disinformation campaign — originating on the mainland — that has been using their platforms to reframe the conversation around Hong Kong’s ongoing protest movement in an effort to undermine it.

In an announcement circulated early this morning, Twitter said it had identified a core of nearly 1,000 accounts 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.”

A “larger, spammy network” of some 200,000 accounts also appeared to working in tandem with the core accounts to amplify their messages. All of the accounts were “proactively suspended,” Twitter said.

Facebook, meanwhile, announced that it had removed seven pages, three groups, and five accounts similarly originating in China and engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” after receiving a tip-off from Twitter.

Though the number of fake entities busted on Facebook was much smaller, the platform said that the pages and groups had drawn in at least 17,000 followers and members.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Facebook said in its statement.

Some of the posts targeted by Facebook and Twitter echo Beijing’s stance that protesters were engaging in “terrorist-like” behavior, with one showing an image of protesters and an image of ISIS fighters and asking “What’s the difference?”

A post from a fake account likening Hong Kong protesters to ISIS fighters. Photo via Facebook.
A post from a fake account likening Hong Kong protesters to ISIS fighters. Photo via Facebook.

Others parrot mainland authorities’ contention that “forces hid[ing] behind the scenes” are behind the massive popular movement, with one appearing to warn these forces that “The path of your darkness and the bright roads of the masses of Hong Kong people will not inevitably coexist.”

A tweet from a fake account suggesting people with 'ulterior motives' were behind Hong Kong's protests. Photo via Twitter.
A tweet from a fake account suggesting people with “ulterior motives” were behind Hong Kong’s protests. Photo via Twitter.

The existence of the campaign may come as little surprise to avid users of social media, particularly Twitter, where recent weeks have seen a proliferation of accounts — many with few followers, and seemingly randomly generated numerals for names — circulating stridently pro-Beijing messaging.

Still, experts say this indicates China is evolving in the sphere of social media disinformation, a realm where Russia has tended to lead the way. Both Facebook and Twitter are banned on the mainland, suggesting the latest campaign is aimed at Hongkongers and the global public.

“The Chinese have been watching what works and what doesn’t in the context of Russian information operations,” Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told the New York Times. “China is testing the waters on what is effective and what they can get away with.”


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