Facebook and Twitter are blocked in mainland China by the country’s censors, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese state media from using those same social media platforms to spread propaganda about the protests in Hong Kong. And Chinese officials are not happy that both Twitter and Facebook have started to crack down on government-run accounts for spreading disinformation
China’s Foreign Minister, Geng Shuang, expressed his displeasure with the situation at a press conference in China on Tuesday.
“It’s reasonable for Chinese media to tell the country’s story via overseas social media platforms, and I don’t understand why some companies or individuals have had such a strong response, is it because the information hit their weak point?” the Foreign Minister said, according to the state-run media outlet the Global Times on Twitter, ironically enough.
Facebook announced on Monday they were removing some accounts that had been engaging in “inauthentic behavior,” following reports from Gizmodo and Buzzfeed that Chinese state media were even buying ads to spread disinformation about the protesters in Hong Kong. Facebook identified 936 accounts linked to the Chinese government that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.”
Twitter also identified fishy behavior from the Chinese government, which it was attempting to shut down.
“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests,” Twitter said Monday.
Foreign Minister Geng said that Chinese students living overseas and other Chinese nationals living abroad “have the right to express their opinion” on social media. But those accounts haven’t been affected by yesterday’s crackdown on propaganda activity. Instead, U.S. social media companies have been trying to respond to the recent surge in activity from Chinese government social media trolls who try to depict the Hong Kong protesters as violent and out of control.
Some Chinese students at universities in the UK and Australia have been able to demonstrate against the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and footage of those rallies is being broadcast around the world. The pro-Beijing students often taunt counter-protesters, asking why they need to cover their faces, a precaution for political dissidents who may be concerned about cutting edge facial recognition software.
Xinhua News, the largest state-run media outlet in the world, posted video to Twitter today showing the taunts of pro-Beijing protesters. Xinhua previously bought ads on Twitter to promote its content, but Twitter banned state-run media channels from purchasing ads in a new rule announced yesterday.
The video posted by Xinhua claims to show “violent” protests, but the footage is relatively tame, all things considered. An estimated 1.7 million people from Hong Kong took to the streets on Sunday to demand more autonomy from China, and there were no reports of any violence between police and protesters.
Hong Kong was formerly a British colony but was handed off to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” policy that allowed Hong Kong to be semi-autonomous and maintain many democratic norms. That system has deteriorated recently following a proposal in June to let China extradite so-called criminals from the region.
China shows no signs of giving up on its smear campaign against protesters in Hong Kong, and many observers around the world are getting nervous about what Beijing might do next. The Chinese government has amassed troops across the border in Shenzhen in a show of force that Beijing clearly wants on view.
Michael Tien, one member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council who’s traditionally been pro-Beijing, warns that he believes China could institute a major military crackdown in Hong Kong by the first week of September. China’s National Day, which celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China, is on October 1, 2019. This year is the 70th anniversary, and Tien believes that the Chinese government will act before then to suppress any demonstrations.
“Obviously the top leadership would want all the cameras around the world [to] focus on the achievement of China, its military might, the parade, and everything,” Tien told Bloomberg. “And the last thing they want to see is unrest in Hong Kong.”
Tien believes that even if the protests were to be scaled back, China would still invade Hong Kong to make sure there aren’t any distractions from its upcoming National Day.
“Even a few thousand people peacefully marching in the street is going to cast a very bad impression on the National Day,” Tien told the Bloomberg anchors who seemed a bit shocked. “So what I heard is that there would be a deadline. The deadline should probably be the first week in September.”
“Are you saying they’re sending troops then, if the streets are still filled with protesters?” one Bloomberg reporter asked.
“Well, this is what I heard,” Tien said.
Things are going to get really bad if the Chinese military invades Hong Kong, so all we can do at this point is hope that it doesn’t come to that. But at least American social media companies are cracking down on the disinformation campaigns currently being waged by the Chinese government.