Twitter reveals China’s information operations on Hong Kong protests

Derivative image from Flickr user mkhmarketing CC: AT Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

On August 19, Twitter revealed that 936 accounts originating from mainland China were ”attempting to sowing political discord” in Hong Kong so as to ”undermine the legitimacy and political positions” of the anti-extradition movement on the ground.

Upon investigations, Twitter believed that the information operation was state-backed in a coordinated manner.

Although Twitter is blocked in China since 2009, some of the above accounts had accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China, the company explained. Moreover, the 936 accounts were merely the most active ones and there existed a larger network of approximately 200,000 accounts created as part of this operation. The company said that it suspended all of the accounts for a number of violations of its ”platform manipulations policies”, including spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts, attributed activity and ban evasion.

Although Twitter stated that the company was ”committed to understanding and combating how bad-faith actors use [their] services”, a simple search could still bring the audience to a huge number of disinformation about the protests in Hong Kong on the platform.

Coordinated information operations

One coordinated spread of disinformation was about the protest crackdown on August 11. Several state-run news outlets including China Daily reported that one protester was using US-made M320 grenade launcher to attack the police.

The fact is there has not been any evidence that the “gun” appearing in the video was in fact M320 or just imitation firearm for war game and there has not been any police officer reportedly being hurt by M320 or other types of firearms.

At the same time, China Central Television alleged the woman whose right eye was badly injured after Hong Kong police fired a round of bean bags outside Tsim Sha Tsui police station was actually injured by other protesters. The report also suggested that the woman was a middle person paying young people to join the protests by posting a photo in which she was handing money to another person.

The fact is Hong Kong police admitted that they had fired a maximum of 10 rounds of bean bags outside Tsim Sha Tsui police station near the woman got shot. The woman is a first aiders as identified by others in the medical team.

Today, when Global Voices searched for terms and expressions like “stupid fellow protester” (猪队友) in Chinese, “M320 Hong Kong” on Twitter, generated results still included a considerable amount of fake news depicting Hong Kong protests as terrorist activities. Below is a typical example of a tweet disseminating the two fake news stories mentioned above:

Hilarious, shot by stupid fellow protester and blame the police. This is such a joke. How could bean bags shoot through the obstacle and take a turn? The rioters were behind a billboard. What they did are harmful to the society. They attacked the police in the name of peaceful protest, laser pens, bricks, umbrellas, fire bombs and even foreign made M320 grenade launcher. You are terrorists.

After the August 11 brutal crackdown on the protests, the Chinese government stated in a press conference that Hong Kong protests had shown signs of terrorism on the next day. However, the claim about “signs of terrorism” is not grounded but built upon massive amount of fake and distorted information spread on social media inside and outside mainland China.

Beyond Twitter: Spamming, harassment and more

Twitter is just one of the battle sites outside China, Instagram and Facebook, also blocked in the country, faced similar information operations.

Facebook said that it identified “deceptive tactics” deployed by accounts associated with the Chinese government. The company had only removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts originating from mainland China used to manipulate information related to Hong Kong.

China online patriotic trolls had launched several crusades to overseas sites, in particular Facebook to pick fight with other users. The latest was from August 17 to 18, when more than 10 thousand mainland Chinese online patriots had taken part in the crusades. On Facebook, they spammed comments of independent and citizen news outlets with Chinese flags and slogans to support the Hong Kong police. Apple Daily News has to close the comment function in its live-streaming of the protests on Facebook.

Hong Kong media outlets’ Facebook pages were spammed with Chinese flags posted by patriotic trolls. Screen capture via China Daily's WeChat

They also filed massive reports to social media platforms such as Youtube and Instagram demanding removal of images citing reasons such as “explicit content”, “copyright”, “discrimination”, “defamation” and etc.

What’s worse, many supporters of Hong Kong protests were harassed through social media platforms’ direct messaging functions. C.A Yeung posted one example and asked Twitter to act upon it.

It is a good news that Twitter has taken the first step to share their investigation on information operation, but global platforms are yet to take more proactive counter measures to stop state-sponsored information operations and the bullying of internet users.

To read more about the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, visit Global Voices’ special coverage page.

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