News Brief

Social media platforms crack down on China’s disinfo campaign against Hong Kong protests

On Monday, Twitter announced it investigated and removed over 900 China-linked 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.” The statement said these active accounts were part of 200,000 accounts, which were eliminated before they began operating.

Facebook investigated and banned pages, groups and accounts “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong,” wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s cybersecurity policy, in an official blog post that noted that Facebook had been tipped off by Twitter.

Many of the tweets or posts were in English. “In general, the hardest part of analyzing disinformation campaigns is proving who’s behind them,” according to Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at Graphika, a social-media analytics company, in an email interview. According to Nimmo, “it’s easy to suspect, but hard to prove definitively.”

According to Twitter, many of these accounts accessed Twitter using virtual private networks, or VPNs. “However, some accounts accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China.” This gave the investigative team grounds to believe the actors were coordinating with the government.

According to Recode, Twitter and Facebook took action only after outsiders pointed out misleading content.

Separately, Gizmodo reported earlier this week that China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua News, has been buying ads to smear protesters. Another Chinese broadcaster, CGTN, posted an anti-democracy rap video.

In response, Twitter made another announcement, informing users of its updated policy — the company will no longer accept advertising dollars from any state-controlled news media entities. The policy doesn’t apply to “taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters.”

“Twitter has taken the right approach by basing itself on the work of civil society groups with real expertise,” according to Ben Nimmo. “The challenge is defining what a “state-controlled” media entity is, and how you prove that they’re controlled by the state when they challenge it. Known state disinformation channels regularly claim that they’re “no different from the BBC,” for example, and you have to look at their actual reporting and violations of basic standards to prove the contrary.”