Twitter, Facebook accuse China of using fake accounts to undermine Hong Kong protests

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Twitter and Facebook say they've dismantled a state-backed information operation originating in mainland China that sought to undermine protests in Hong Kong.
Thousands remain gathered outside the Central Government Complex of HKSAR at 9.20pm on Aug 19, following the march from Victoria Park, with some turning their laser pointers on the government offices. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

SAN FRANCISCO (REUTERS) - Twitter and Facebook said on Monday (Aug 19) they had dismantled a state-backed information operation originating in mainland China that sought to undermine protests in Hong Kong.

Twitter said it suspended 936 accounts and the operations appeared to be a coordinated state-backed effort originating in China. It said these accounts were just the most active portions of this campaign and that a "larger, spammy network" of approximately 200,000 accounts had been proactively suspended before they were substantially active.

Facebook said it had removed accounts and pages from a small network after a tip from Twitter. It said that its investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.

Social media companies are under pressure to stem illicit political influence campaigns online ahead of the US election in November 2020. A 22-month US investigation concluded Russia interfered in a "sweeping and systematic fashion" in the 2016 US election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.

The Chinese embassy in Washington and the US State Department were not immediately available to comment.

The Hong Kong protests, which have presented one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012, began in June as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.

They have since swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Twitter in a blog post said the accounts undermined the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement in Hong Kong.

Examples of posts provided by Twitter included a tweet from a user with photos of protesters storming Hong Kong's Legislative Council building, which asked: "Are these people who smashed the Legco crazy or taking benefits from the bad guys? It's a complete violent behavior, we don't want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!"

In examples provided by Facebook, one post called the protesters "Hong Kong cockroaches" and claimed that they"refused to show their faces".

In a separate statement, Twitter said it was updating its advertising policy and would not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities going forward.

Twitter told Reuters the advertising change was not related to the suspended accounts.

In the past week, China's official Xinhua news agency and state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN) paid to promote videos that portrayed the protests as violent and said Hong Kong citizens wanted the demonstrations to end, according to Twitter's Ads Transparency Centre.

Twitter said it did not have data on how much revenue it generates from state-controlled media advertising.

Many countries including the United States do not have clear standards on state media's purchase of online advertising.

Total digital ad spending in Hong Kong will grow 11 per cent to reach US$786.1 million in 2019, according to projections by US digital market data analyst eMarketer.

Alphabet's YouTube video service told Reuters in June that state-owned media companies maintained the same privileges as any other user, including the ability to run ads in accordance with its rules.

YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday on whether it had detected inauthentic content related to protests in Hong Kong.

In a tweet on Sunday, China's influential state-run tabloid, The Global Times, hailed the response of Chinese "netizens" to the protests, saying: "Chinese netizens' power! Amid escalating protests in Hong Kong, Chinese netizens on Saturday swept Facebook and Instagram to denounce secessionist posts and show support for Hong Kong police."

About 98 per cent of social network users in Hong Kong, or 4.7 million people, will log into Facebook at least once a month in 2019, according to eMarketer projections, while 9.4 per cent of social network users will use Twitter.

Shares of Facebook rose 1.3 per cent and Twitter rose 2.8 per cent.

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