A Chinese 'coordinated state-backed operation' is playing out on social media amid the Hong Kong protests.
As the protests in Hong Kong persist into their 11th week, they have exposed the clear divisions within diasporic Chinese communities.
On the same weekend hundreds of thousands marched peacefully in Hong Kong, tense scenes played out between rival demonstrators in Australia – as well as Canada and the UK.
Those ruptures have been playing out in a virtual sense too – with hundreds of Facebook and Twitter accounts which originated in China amplifying the narrative that Hong Kong protesters are violent rioters.
Twitter and Facebook have suspended accounts believed to have ties to the state-backed disinformation campaign and Twitter will also bar state-media from advertising.
“It’s the first time we’ve had this kind of confirmation from western social media platforms that they have seen Chinese-state sponsored action,” Anne Kruger from the University of Technology, Sydney, told SBS News.
“We’ve had a lot of misinformation and disinformation campaigns across Asia over the past few years. Many observers and activists have wanted the platforms to take a stand, so this is an encouraging sign.”
Twitter has closed 936 accounts which it said were likely linked to a covert disinformation campaign, intended to “sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political protest movement on the ground.”
“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
The banned accounts are part of a network of more than 200,000 fake social media accounts spreading propaganda about the protests.
Twitter, Facebook, and many other western social media platforms are blocked in mainland China – and cannot be accessed without a Virtual Private Network (VPN) - but some of the accounts were traced to unblocked IP addresses based in the mainland.
Facebook, after a tip-off from Twitter, has removed seven pages, three groups, and five personal accounts.
In a blog post, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, Nathaniel Gleicher wrote: “although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identity, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”
Hong Kong journalists and foreign correspondents alike have been targeted by trolls while covering the protests.
There is even a word in Chinese to describe those who are part of this army of internet trolls - 五毛 (wumao). Literally, it means 50 cents - but in internet slang, it describes those online commentators who are seemingly paid off by authorities to defend the Chinese Communist Party.
Some journalists have shared the online vitriol directed at them – disturbingly; some female reporters have even received rape threats.
It’s unclear whether such inflammatory messages are linked to the concerns Facebook and Twitter have expressed – but Ms Kruger said there is a clear link between these lone keyboard warriors and wider propaganda.
“Journalists – just going about their jobs – can be picked up by trolls, and that opens them up to being targeted in a more organised disinformation campaign – it can have a chilling effect,” she said.
“We have likened some of the dialogue to hate speech… so the responsibility Facebook and Twitter take here is essential in calming the dialogue.”
Some reporters have also received abusive comments on Youtube.
In announcing its ban on state-media advertising, Twitter did not specifically name any media outlets but there’s little doubt who the decision targets.
Many had criticised Twitter in the first place for accepting advertising revenue Xinhua – China’s biggest media organisation – and allowing them to create sponsored posts.
“There is a difference between engaging in conversation with accounts you choose to follow and the content you see from advertisers in your Twitter experience, which may be from accounts you’re not currently following,” the company said.
“We have policies for both but we have higher standards for our advertisers.”
But, Ms Kruger said some clarity is needed and enforcing the ban could come with a number of challenges.
“I would like the details about how much revenue Twitter made from this advertising, and how many campaigns there were until it was decided to halt this,” she said.
“Government officials still use these platforms – telling the story through their lens. Exactly how do you classify a breach, and where do you draw the line? We are seeing these effects and ramifications online moving beyond geographical borders.”