Fake news stoking violence, deepening divisions in the city

HONG KONG • Soon after computer science undergraduate Alex Chow Tsz Lok fell off the edge of a parking garage in Hong Kong, the allegations began spreading online.

Posts circulating in chat groups and on social media claimed the 22-year-old student from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was chased - and maybe even pushed - by police who were clearing protesters with tear gas nearby. Officers blocked an ambulance from reaching him, the posts alleged, delaying aid that could have saved his life.

Never mind that the claims were unsubstantiated, that police denied chasing Mr Chow and that mainstream news outlets, including the South China Morning Post, described the circumstances of his fall as unclear. Hundreds of protesters seized on his Nov 8 death to engage in clashes with police that resulted in one person being shot on Monday.

As Hong Kong's anti-government protests stretch into their 23rd straight week, the city is being inundated with online rumours, fake news and propaganda from both sides of the political divide.

"False information feeds itself to polarise public opinion," said Dr Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, who has spent the last seven years studying fake news. "I worry that it reaches a point where reconciliation of this divide is no longer possible."

The proliferation of questionable information has coincided with waning confidence in once-trusted Hong Kong institutions. Nearly 80 per cent of the public are dissatisfied with the government's performance, up from 40 per cent a year ago, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. Just a fifth of the city support Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and only half of the population are satisfied with the police force.

Hong Kong does not have a fake news law, though Secretary for Security John Lee said this month that "most of the laws in the real world are applicable to the online world", such as publishing information that threatens public safety.

There is little sign that fact-checking efforts have had a meaningful impact on how Hong Kongers digest information related to the demonstrations.

"There have been too many suspicious deaths since June," said Joe, a 35-year-old bank employee and protester who declined to provide his surname. "We cannot let Chow die without justice."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2019, with the headline 'Fake news stoking violence, deepening divisions in the city'. Print Edition | Subscribe