Facebook and Twitter have moved to curb Chinese state-backed disinformation campaigns that targeted pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters, marking the first time the social media groups have linked covert propaganda operations on their platforms to Beijing. 

Twitter said in a blog post that it had discovered 936 accounts originating from mainland China 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”.

The social media company said it had suspended the accounts associated with the operation, and that it had “reliable evidence” that this was a “co-ordinated state-backed operation”.

In a separate statement, Twitter said that it would no longer accept advertising from “state-controlled news media entities” apart from taxpayer-funded groups such as independent broadcasters, and groups “solely dedicated” to entertainment, sports and travel content.

“Covert, manipulative behaviours have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” the company said.

Facebook said that it had launched an investigation after Twitter shared a tip about the campaign it discovered. Facebook then found and removed about 15 pages, groups and accounts that were “associated with the Chinese government” and also “focused on Hong Kong”, it added.

Facebook and Twitter have taken down numerous disinformation campaigns over the past 18 months, often linked to Iran and Russia, which have used the platforms to try and influence elections in the west.

Chinese officialdom have long used the platforms — both of which are blocked in China — to spread pro-Chinese Communist party content, including by paying for advertising.

Beijing has in recent months doubled-down on its efforts to combat China-related discussion that it dislikes on the platforms, from detaining dissidents that use Twitter to setting up accounts for its officials.

The link to the Chinese government comes after weeks of demonstrations by anti-government protesters in Hong Kong sparked the Asian financial hub’s biggest political crisis in decades.

Chinese state-run media have displayed images of paramilitary forces and armoured vehicles massing across the border in Shenzhen, sparking fears that Beijing might use force to stop the unrest. 

Some of the fake accounts discovered by Facebook posed as news organisations and likened the protesters to Isis fighters and cockroaches. Others on Twitter labelled the demonstrators as “violent” and “radical”.

Twitter said that it had taken down a further 200,000 accounts that were also linked to the campaign, but were focused on spam rather than content creation. These were suspended before they became “substantially active” on the service, it said.

China’s growing assertiveness on western social media has largely focused on rebuffing criticism or influencing the Chinese diaspora.

Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said that Beijing’s Facebook and Twitter information operations are part of ramped up efforts to win hearts and minds outside of China’s controlled internet environment.

“It’s the first time these social media platforms have come out so emphatically. It’s a clear warning that China’s state actors are trying to shape our views,” he said.

Elections in self-governed Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, have been a prime focus of such campaigns, analysts say. A spokesperson for Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry said the platforms should also look into “state-orchestrated attacks” undermining elections in Taiwan.

Get alerts on Hong Kong politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article