China's Biggest Propaganda Agency Buys Ads on Facebook and Twitter to Smear Protesters in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy protesters take part in a rally as they march on August 18, 2019 in Hong Kong.
Photo: Getty Images

China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua News, is buying ads on Facebook and Twitter to smear protesters in Hong Kong, a new tactic being used to influence how the rest of the world perceives the pro-democracy demonstrators.

An estimated 1.7 million people in Hong Kong, roughly a quarter of its population, took to the streets on Sunday to denounce Beijing’s attempts to interfere in the semi-autonomous territory. But China has amassed soldiers across the border in Shenzhen and appears to be stepping up its propaganda efforts online through paid ads on Facebook and Twitter, as well as unpaid content on platforms like YouTube.

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Xinhua News currently has five different Facebook ads that directly relate to the unrest in Hong Kong, and all of the ads started running on Sunday, August 18. One of the Facebook ads addresses Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi directly, calling on her to “fly to Hong Kong to see what the true facts are.” Pelosi has been critical of the Chinese government’s suppression of the demonstrators and called Beijing’s actions “cowardly.”

The anti-Pelosi Facebook ad uses viral video from an Australian traveler who was recently inconvenienced at the Hong Kong International Airport. Protesters helped shut down the airport over the course of two days, demanding freedom and apologizing to travelers for disrupting their flights. The Australian traveler, who appears to have given an interview to Chinese state media, told pro-democracy demonstrators they should “get a job” and even said they should “know their place,” though the latter isn’t featured in the Facebook ad.

The Australian traveler also said that “Hong Kong is a part of China,” something that’s controversial because Hong Kong currently operates under a “one country, two systems” arrangement. That arrangement allows Hong Kong to temporarily maintain democratic laws and traditions until the year 2047. That year is obviously well within the lifetimes of many young protesters, and has contributed to the young-old divide in the region. Some elderly Hongkongers have been the most outspoken against the protests, something that becomes clear in the pro-Beijing Facebook ads.

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Another Facebook ad from Xinhua claims that Hong Kong’s economy is suffering over the protests and insists that the public wants someone to “restore order.” The ad shows pro-Beijing demonstrators calling for an end to the violence, heavily implying that it’s the protestors who have caused the most harm.

In reality, Hong Kong police have been the ones causing the most violence on the ground, shooting “nonlethal” rounds at point blank range, and firing tear gas regularly into crowds of non-violent protesters. One woman recently lost an eye after being shot by police, leading some allies to wear a bandage over their own eyes in a sign of solidarity. Xinhua’s propaganda video has also been posted to YouTube, though it’s unclear if the propaganda agency is buying paid ads on the platform.

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Another propaganda ad from Xinhua focuses on the economic situation in Hong Kong. The ad shows photos of empty shopping malls with a caption that, yet again, calls for “order” to be restored—an ominous declaration from an authoritarian government like China’s, which currently holds anywhere from 800,000 to 3 million Muslims in concentration camps.

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Xinhua is also promoting Twitter posts that suggest the violence is being perpetrated by the protesters and claims, again, that “order should be restored.” There’s obviously a pattern to all of this and Beijing wants to control the narrative by insisting that “order” is more important than democratic rights. And it’s no wonder why, with so much money at stake.

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Another Chinese state media outlet, CGTN, even posted an embarrassing anti-democracy rap video to Twitter over the weekend that ends with President Donald Trump saying Hong Kong is part of China.

Trump has previously been reluctant to criticize China over its anti-democratic crackdown and now Chinese propagandists are using his own words against the protesters.

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The protests in Hong Kong have been raging for eleven weeks now, initially set off by an extradition bill that would have allowed Beijing to snatch so-called criminals from Hong Kong. The big problem, however, is that Hong Kong is a haven for political dissidents and pro-democracy leaders in Asia. The extradition bill has been withdrawn by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but the protesters want assurances that it won’t be reintroduced.

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China’s Xinhua News has been on Facebook since 2012, despite the fact that Facebook is banned in mainland China. Twitter and YouTube are also banned, but the intended audience of these ads is clearly the international community. Protest organizers in Hong Kong have purchased their own ads in international newspapers, according to the Hong Kong Free Press, but it’s not clear whether they’re buying ads online as well.

The print ad, which appeared today in the New York Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail, among others, reads in part:

Amid tear gas and rubber bullets, this once vibrant and safe metropolis is at a crossroads. Since the protests against the controversial extradition bill started in June, Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom have been eroded beyond recognition. This is the ugly truth that the Hong Kong government does not want you to know: Hong Kong is becoming a police state.

Instead of implementing political reform as promised, the Hong Kong government has turned into an apparatus of repression. Police brutality, endorsed by both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, has now become part of our daily lives.

In the name of public order, the police dehumanize protesters as ‘cockroaches’ and deploy certain anti-riot measures prohibited by international standards. The police also batter passers-by, journalists and medical personnel. Police stations are shut whenever alleged thugs-for-hire indiscriminately attack protesters and ordinary citizens.

Arbitrary arrests and political prosecutions are becoming increasingly common. These are all tactics of the Hong Kong government to intimidate its own people into silence.

Bear witness to Hongkongers’ fight for freedom. Tell our story—especially if we can no longer do it ourselves. Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.

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It’s not clear how much money Facebook and Twitter are making from the Chinese propaganda ads and the tech giants did not respond to requests for comment this morning. We will update this article if we hear back.

Update 11:38 am: A high-level Twitter executive initially told Gizmodo that this tweet from Xinhua wasn’t being run as an ad, then said it was and that it had been pulled for violating the social network’s policies regarding “inappropriate content.” When Gizmodo asked what specifically had violated Twitter’s policies, the Twitter exec said they have “nothing further to share.”

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Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog