For the past 11 weeks, protesters in Hong Kong have marched in response to creeping authoritarianism from Beijing
. The protesters seek the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, an inquiry into excessive force on the part of police, and the release of political prisoners. An estimated 1 million people marched over the weekend, producing stirring images
of a still-somewhat-free people striving to remain that way.
The protesters have roused much sympathy outside of China, with thousands of people joining in solidarity marches around the world
. Global opinion is hardening against China, and US social networks remain a vital source of information in Hong Kong, where they are accessible to those using VPNs. And if all that has you saying “hey, this would seem to be the perfect moment for a state-sponsored information operation,” then you must have already read today’s news. Here’s Makena Kelly in The Verge
Twitter and Facebook have uncovered and suspended a network of fake accounts that were believed to have been operated by the Chinese government. On Monday, both companies disclosed their investigations into the coordinated information operation, which was apparently intended to sow political discord around the protests taking place in Hong Kong.
According to Twitter
, 936 accounts created within the People’s Republic of China were found to be “deliberately and specifically” sowing discord in Hong Kong in an attempt to undermine “the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”
“All the accounts have been suspended for a range of violations of our platform manipulation policies,” Twitter said in the blog.
And to think people said that American social networks never make it in China!
This is the first time Facebook and Twitter have identified and removed a Chinese disinformation campaign, so good for them. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was the smaller and less capable of these companies that identified the campaign and tipped off its bigger rival — more evidence that Twitter is making strides
when it comes to platform integrity.
Of course, perhaps it should have been obvious to Twitter that China was running a disinformation campaign — it was paying Twitter to do so. As the critic and entrepreneur Pinboard noted in a thread
, state-controlled Chinese media have been buying ads that paint the protesters as violent extremists. Ryan Gallagher ran some of it down
in the publication for which the one you’re reading now is most often confused (The Intercept)
A review of Twitter advertisements from between June and August this year showed that the social media giant promoted more than 50 English-language tweets from the Global Times, a Chinese state media organization. Several of the tweets deliberately obscure the truth about the situation in Xinjiang and attack critics of the country’s ruling Communist Party regime.
The Global Times paid Twitter to promote its tweets to a portion of the more than 300 million active users on the social media platform. The tweets appeared in users’ timelines, regardless of whether they followed the Global Times account. In July, amid global condemnation of the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Twitter began promoting several Global Times tweets about the region.
Properly chastened by all of this, Twitter said today it would no longer accept ads from state-controlled media. (Which is distinct from media that is merely state-funded; PBS and the BBC ought to still be able to promote their wares.) Facebook wouldn’t go that far, but said it was taking a fresh look at the matter
In any case, the main thing to note here is that more states are waking up to the fact that American social networks remain a fairly welcoming attack surface for their information operations. As Sophia Ignatidou notes in the Guardian
While initially countries that were seasoned propagandists, such as Russia and North Korea, were identified as the main culprits, the list of states employing disinformation is growing. China is apparently using disinformation to portray Hong Kong protesters as proxies of nefarious western powers and violent rioters, potentially to prepare the ground for more violent intervention to suppress the movement. India has been the host of constant disinformation campaigns, either ahead of the most recent elections
or during the current standoff with Pakistan over Kashmir
. Lobbying and PR firms have now professionalised online disinformation, as the cases of Sir Lynton Crosby’s CTF Partners in the UK
and the troll farms in the Philippines
The next stage in the weaponisation of information is the increasing effort to control information flows and therefore public opinion, quite often using – ironically enough – the spectre of disinformation as the excuse to do so
. Internet shutdowns made headlines recently during India’s communications blackout in Kashmir but they have already become commonplace in Africa
. Access Now has reported
that internet shutdowns between 2016 and 2018 more than doubled. According to some reports, the app used by protesters in Hong Kong to coordinate, Telegram, also received a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack from mainland China
The good news is that platforms are getting better at identifying disinformation campaigns. The bad news is that the tactics of these governments keep evolving — and in many cases they have far more resources at their disposal than the companies they’re up against. When it comes to social media dominance, Facebook and Twitter have a commanding lead. When it comes to military operations, they’re still playing catch up.