China Launches Massive Twitter, Facebook Propaganda Campaign Against Hong Kong Protesters

Months-long protests in Hong Kong have escalated and roughly 1.7 million protesters took to the streets this past weekend. Protesters rallied against a now-withdrawn bill that might place Hong Kong residents under the jurisdiction of courts controlled by the Communist Party of China. In response, China launched a massive propaganda campaign on Facebook and Twitter, aimed at delegitimizing the protesters even as Chinese armed forces moved South to threaten Hong Kong.

Facebook and Twitter shut down the propaganda efforts Monday, but only after they had gained steam on the social media platforms.

The social media site Pinboard reported seeing ads from Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run press agency of China's government, on Twitter, among news of the protests in Hong Kong.

"Every day I go out and see stuff with my own eyes, and then I go to report it on Twitter and see promoted tweets saying the opposite of what I saw. Twitter is taking money from Chinese propaganda outfits and running these promoted tweets against the top Hong Kong protest hashtags," the site reported.

Xinhua News claimed that residents of Hong Kong are furious with the protesters, calling them a threat to the social order.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department flagged Xinhua News and its global television network as "foreign agents." China's repressive government restricts the use of social media, including WeChat along with Facebook and Twitter. Interestingly, Twitter is blocked in China, but Xinhua News and other propaganda sources set up Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to get on the platform, anyway.

As Forbes's Zak Doffman pointed out, "For the news agencies to promote the interests of their state-controllers is to be expected, but clearly the sophistication of targeting enabled by social media platforms provides an opportunity to deliver those messages very specifically. And that, for many, is the issue with what Twitter has allowed to happen here."

On Monday, Twitter took the unusual step of disclosing "a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change."

Twitter called out 936 accounts originating in China, "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. Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation."

While the 936 accounts Twitter specified "represent the most active portions of this campaign," a larger spam network of roughly 200,000 accounts was proactively suspended before they could become active. In other words, the propaganda effort could have been worse by a degree of magnitude.

Twitter announced it had suspended all the accounts for a range of platform manipulation violations, including spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts, attributed activity, and ban evasion.

"Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built," Twitter Safety explained. While the social media company does not expect these campaigns to stop, it added archives containing "complete Twitter and user information for the 936 accounts we've disclosed to our archive of information operations — the largest of its kind in the industry." The company said it aims to "empower further learning and public understanding of these nefarious tactics."

Also on Monday, Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, announced a similar crackdown on the propaganda efforts.

"Today, we removed seven Pages, three Groups and five Facebook accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong," Gleicher announced. "The individuals behind this campaign engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts — some of which had been already disabled by our automated systems — to manage Pages posing as news organizations, post in Groups, disseminate their content, and also drive people to off-platform news sites."

"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government," he added. While the propaganda effort only used five Facebook accounts, seven Pages, and three Groups, about 15,500 Facebook accounts followed one or more of those Pages and about 2,200 accounts joined at least one of the Groups.

Facebook found the Chinese disinformation efforts based on a tip from Twitter. The company said it will continue monitoring and that it has shared its analysis with law enforcement and industry partners. "We don't want our services to be used to manipulate people. We’re taking down these Pages, Groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted."

The responses of Twitter and Facebook to this propaganda campaign are heartening, but their efforts did not prevent the disinformation effort. China's desire to spread negative information about the Hong Kong protests suggests brutal repression, but it also suggests that Chinese officials are legitimately afraid of the freedom fighters. China's communist government may quash this grasp for freedom just like it did at Tiananmen Square, but the world is watching and the truth will get out.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.