Twitter and Facebook announced on Monday the suspension of hundreds of thousands of accounts believed to be part of a massive disinformation campaign by the Chinese government to sow discord among pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong,” Twitter said in a statement. “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.”
Twitter said it deleted 936 accounts that were the most active part of the operation, while a large network of 200,000 other spammy accounts were also proactively suspended. The company went a step further, deciding to ban advertising from state-controlled news media after Chinese media placed ads on the platform suggesting that Hong Kong protesters were becoming violent.
Facebook announced a similar crackdown, stating Monday that it had removed seven pages, three groups, and five accounts which had been coordinating inauthentic behavior in Hong Kong from mainland China. “They frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, said in a statement. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”
The Chinese government has struggled to control the narrative of the pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong, which have been ongoing for more than 11 weeks. What initially began as a protest over an extradition bill which would allow China greater legal jurisdiction has blossomed into an all-encompassing demonstration against the territory’s government, police brutality, and in support of democratic reforms. On Sunday, an estimated 1.7 million people — nearly 25% of the city — defied police bans to turn out and march again.
Throughout the movement protesters have remained relatively peaceful, although there were some noted scuffles. Last Tuesday, during demonstrations at Hong Kong’s airport, protesters surrounded and attacked two men from mainland China, including a state media journalist. The protesters accused one man of being a mainland Chinese police officer impersonating a protester, according to The New York Times. Video footage also showed protesters beating a police officer with his baton, only retreating when he pulled his gun. Protesters later apologized for the incidents at the airport.
Despite violent scuffles being mostly an aberration during the protests, the suspended Facebook and Twitter accounts sought to portray Hong Kong violence as the norm. One since-removed Facebook account compared the protesters to ISIS, while another referred to them as “cockroaches.” State-backed Chinese media, meanwhile, has tried to paint protesters as a vocal minority backed by foreign powers.
This is hardly the first time that states have used disinformation tactics to further their own political goals. Russia, of course, famously used inauthentic accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Cambridge Analytica, meanwhile, regularly used disinformation in elections in developing countries like Kenya and Nigeria, despite the affect it had on those countries’ fraught socio-economic and ethnic tensions.