China used fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to target Hong Kong protests

Twitter Inc. found and deleted hundreds of accounts it said China used to undermine the Hong Kong protest movement and calls for political change.

The company said it took down 936 accounts that originated within China and attempted to manipulate perspectives on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Facebook Inc., acting on a tip from Twitter, said it also found a similar Chinese government-backed operation on its social network, with five fake accounts, seven pages and three groups.

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” Twitter said Monday in a blog post. “Overall, these accounts 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.”

Facebook came to the same conclusion. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” the company said in a blog post.

This is the first significant move against coordinated disinformation from China by Twitter and Facebook. The social networks are blocked in the mainland, but many people still access the sites via technical workarounds. In Hong Kong, where the sites aren’t blocked, protesters have roiled the financial hub for 11 weeks fighting to secure democratic freedoms. The alleged disinformation campaign is one of several ways China has sought to quell the largely leaderless protest.

The social networks began to remove government propaganda campaigns after discovering Russia’s network of accounts, groups and ads attempting to sow discord around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. China’s impact could ultimately be greater than Russia’s, according to Brett Bruen, the president of Global Situation Room Inc., who worked in the Obama White House on tackling disinformation and other projects. The Chinese government has been building influence in outside territories, digitally and otherwise, for many years, though it has rarely used its power over other regions, he said.

“It’s like the Death Star from Star Wars,” Bruen said. “The capability is there, but has never been fully deployed. If they choose to operationalize the capabilities they’ve been building in a more aggressive way, that could present a massive change to world politics.”

Twitter said the accounts it suspended “represent the most active portions of this campaign; a larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts” were taken down before they were “substantially active.”

In a related announcement, Twitter said it will stop accepting advertising from state-backed media worldwide, after finding propaganda messages that Chinese-run media paid to promote on its site. The ban doesn’t affect taxpayer-funded or independently operated media like the BBC.

Facebook still accepts ads from state-run media, but is looking more closely at its policies. “We’re also taking a closer look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our policies,” the company said in a statement.

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China used fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to target Hong Kong protests