Twitter and Facebook took significant steps Monday to curb efforts by China’s state-run media to disseminate propaganda about the current protests in Hong Kong, following reports that Beijing is social media to disseminate a false narrative about the popular uprising. Both companies have suspended or removed numerous accounts involved in the “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and Twitter announced that it will now be prohibiting state-controlled media sources from advertising Twitter entirely. “Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service—they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” the company said in a statement.
The dramatic countermeasures follow reports that Chinese state-controlled media outlets have been using Twitter and Facebook advertisements in order to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative of the Hong Kong protests and delegitimize protesters. The advertisements have attempted to paint the Hong Kong protesters as the “public enemy” and promoted negative views of the protests as violent, disruptive, and influenced by foreign provocateurs. The Chinese-run China Xinhua News tweeted a video with the caption, “Hong Kong citizens call for stopping violence, ending chaos and restoring order in the city,” for instance, which was then shared by Twitter user @Pinboard with the message: “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.” In another tweet, the Chinese outlet CGTN shared an anti-protest rap video by “Chinese mainland rappers,” which features footage of President Donald Trump commenting on the protests and criticizes Hillary Clinton for her messages in support of the protesters.
The Chinese efforts to push their narrative on social media appears to be a propaganda campaign to spread their views of the situation in Hong Kong to the Western world, as Twitter and Facebook remain censored by the government in mainland China. “It’s very clear that the Chinese state media is essentially buying ads on Twitter and Facebook for the purpose of reaching an international audience as part of China’s effort to ‘tell its story better,’” Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, told Buzzfeed News. While the Chinese government has undertaken similar efforts before, in this case “the state media rhetoric and narrative are so vastly different from what we see on the ground,” Ni added. “The international community can easily spot the incongruences and in fact the blatant lies.”
Twitter said Monday that it had identified 936 accounts as part of a “coordinated state-backed operation” that was “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 936 accounts were the most active ones noticed by Twitter, but a “larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts” was also preemptively suspended before they could become “substantially active.” Facebook, too, said that it had removed seven Pages, three Groups and five Facebook accounts related to Chinese activity regarding Hong Kong. The accounts “engaged in a number of deceptive tactics,” Facebook noted, including using fake accounts, and the Facebook investigation “found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.” Beyond the suspensions, Twitter also announced that it would prohibit all state-controlled media around the world from advertising on Twitter. The ban, which does not apply to taxpayer-funded entities or independent public broadcasters like NPR or PBS, will focus on “news media entities that are either financially or editorially controlled by the state.” “We want to protect healthy discourse and open conversation,” Twitter wrote in a statement. “To that end, we believe that 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.”
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