Update August 23, 2019: After Twitter, and Facebook Google has shutdown 210 YouTube channels that were tied to misinformation about Hong Kong protesters. The article has been updated accordingly.
Chinese state-run media agencies have been buying advertisements and promoted tweets on Twitter and Facebook to portray Hong Kong protestors and their pro-democracy demonstrations as violent. These ads, reported by Pinboard’s Twitter account were circulated by State-run news agency Xinhua calling these protesters as those “escalating violence” and calls for “order to be restored.” In reality, Hong Kong protests have been called a completely peaceful march. Pinboard warned and criticized Twitter about these tweets and asked for its takedown. Though Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, the Chinese state-run media runs several English-language accounts to present its views to the outside world.
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 pic.twitter.com/6Wb0Km6GOb
— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 17, 2019
I just came home from a completely peaceful march where possibly a million Hong Kong residents came out, with no police in sight, to call for basic democratic rights. What greets me is straight up lies from Xinhua about "bands of thugs", courtesy of Twitter advertising. pic.twitter.com/pUTsnqZ5oN
— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 18, 2019
Twitter bans 936 accounts managed by the Chinese state
Following this revelation, in a blog post yesterday, Twitter said that they are discovering a “significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement”. They identified 936 accounts that were undermining “the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.” They found a larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts which represented the most active portions of this campaign. These were suspended for a range of violations of their platform manipulation policies. These accounts were able to access Twitter through VPNs and over a “specific set of unblocked IP addresses” from within China.
“Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” said Twitter.
Twitter bans ads from Chinese state-run media
Twitter also banned advertising from Chinese state-run news media entities across the world and declared that affected accounts will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, but not in their advertising products. This policy will apply to news media entities that are either financially or editorially controlled by the state, said Twitter. They will be notified directly affected entities who will be given 30 days to offboard from advertising products. No new campaigns will be allowed.
However, Pinboard argues that 30 days is too long; Twitter should not wait and suspend Xinhua’s ad account immediately.
Twitter had given itself 30 days to stop letting Xinhua run promoted tweets on its platform. The situation in Hong Kong is delicate and changing quickly; 30 days is four weekends of protest. Twitter should not wait, and suspend Xinhua's ad account immediately.
— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 20, 2019
It also calls on Twitter to disclose:
- How much money it took from Xinhua
- How many ads it ran for them since the start of the Hong Kong protests in June and
- How those ads were targeted
Facebook blocks Chinese accounts engaged in inauthentic behavior
Following a tip shared by Twitter, Facebook also 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. However, unlike Twitter, Facebook did not announce any policy changes in response to the discovery.
YouTube was also notably absent in the fight against Chinese misinformation propagandas.
Notably absent from today's announcements about fighting Chinese disinformation campaigns: YouTube
— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 20, 2019
However, on 22nd August, Youtube axed 210 Youtube channels found to be spreading misinformation about the Hong Kong protests.
“Earlier this week, as part of our ongoing efforts to combat coordinated influence operations, we disabled 210 channels on YouTube when we discovered channels in this network behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong,” Shane Huntley, director of software engineering for Google Security’s Threat Analysis Group said in a blog post.
“We found use of VPNs and other methods to disguise the origin of these accounts and other activity commonly associated with coordinated influence operations.”
Kyle Bass, Chief Investment Officer Hayman Capital Management, called on all social media outlets to ban all Chinese state-run propaganda sources. He tweeted, “Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube should BAN all State-backed propaganda sources in China. It’s clear that these 200,000 accounts were set up by the “state” of China. Why allow Xinhua, global times, china daily, or any others to continue to act? #BANthemALL”
Public acknowledges Facebook and Twitter’s role in exposing Chinese state media
Experts and journalists were appreciative of the role social media played in exposing those guilty and liked how they are responding to state interventions.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, President of the International China Journalist Association called it huge news. “This is the first time that US social media companies are openly accusing the Chinese government of running Russian-style disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing discord”, she tweeted. She added, “We’ve been seeing hints that China has begun to learn from Russia’s MO, such as in Taiwan and Cambodia. But for Twitter and Facebook to come out and explicitly accuse the Chinese govt of a disinformation campaign is another whole level entirely.”
Adam Schiff, Representative (D-CA 28th District) tweeted, “Twitter and Facebook announced they found and removed a large network of Chinese government-backed accounts spreading disinformation about the protests in Hong Kong. This is just one example of how authoritarian regimes use social media to manipulate people, at home and abroad.” He added, “Social media platforms and the U.S. government must continue to identify and combat state-backed information operations online, whether they’re aimed at disrupting our elections or undermining peaceful protesters who seek freedom and democracy.”
Social media platforms took an appreciable step against Chinese state-run media actors attempting to manipulate their platforms to discredit grassroots organizing in Hong Kong. It would be interesting to see if they would continue to protect individual freedoms and provide a safe and transparent platform if state actors from countries where they have a huge audiences like India or US, adopted similar tactics to suppress or manipulate the public or target movements.