China has adopted Russia’s playbook for spreading disinformation on Facebook and Twitter, deploying tactics in its increasingly heated information war over the protests that have convulsed Hong Kong.
In recent weeks, Facebook and Twitter accounts that originated in China acted in a coordinated fashion to amplify messages and images that portrayed Hong Kong’s protesters as violent and extreme, the two social media companies said on Monday. On Facebook, one recent post from a China-linked account likened the protesters to IS fighters. And a Twitter message said, “We don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”
Facebook and Twitter said they had now removed the accounts. For over two months, anti-government protests have gripped Hong Kong, with anger rising over China’s growing influence. Facebook said it eliminated seven pages, three Facebook Groups and five accounts involved in the disinformation campaign about Hong Kong protesters. Twitter deleted 936 accounts and said it would ban state-backed media from promoting tweets after China Daily and other state-backed publications placed ads on its service that suggested the protesters were sponsored by western interests and were becoming violent. The microblogging site added that these accounts were a part of a larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts, which Twitter suspended before they were substantially active on the service.
“These accounts were deliberately attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter said. “We have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
The removal of the Chinabacked accounts signal an escalation in the global disinformation wars. In 2015 and 2016, Russia pioneered disinformation techniques when it used social media to disseminate inflammatory messages intended to divide Americans in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, governments in many other countries — including Bangladesh, Iran and Venezuela— have also used Facebook and Twitter to sow discord at home and abroad. Twitter said it discovered the China-linked accounts during a probe that spanned several weeks. Some of the accounts used Twitter from unblocked IP addresses, the firm said. Since Twitter is not permitted in China, an unblocked IP address is a sign that the accounts were approved by the government.