Social media giants Facebook and Twitter this week disclosed their responses to what they characterized as coordinated disinformation campaigns originating in China—specifically tied to pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong—that they believe may be linked to the Chinese government.
Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post on Monday the company removed three groups, five accounts, and seven pages engaging in “inauthentic behavior,” including by posting political content on issues related to Hong Kong. Twitter, meanwhile said it identified 936 accounts that “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.”
“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 in a blog post. Facebook said it launched an investigation after being tipped off by Twitter about its own findings.
Both Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, and Twitter noted that many of the accounts were able to access its service using VPNs. The company added, though, that “some accounts accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China.” Facebook likewise said that while some accounts appeared to try to mask their identities, it said it identified individuals connected to the Chinese government.
“We’re taking down these Pages, Groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted. As with all of these takedowns, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action,” Facebook’s Gleicher wrote. “We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge.”
The Hong Kong protests began in June over a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong’s semi-democratic government to extradite citizens to mainland China, which is ruled by the country’s Communist Party. That bill has since been shelved, but the protesters are calling for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to fully withdraw the legislation. They’ve also called for Lam’s resignation, which she’s refused, as well as an investigation into police use of force, the release of detained protesters, and other demands.
It was earlier revealed this week that Xinhua News, a state-run news agency in China, was purchasing ads on both platforms in an attempt to shepherd the perception of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests, many of which attempted to smear protesters and called for reinstated “order.” Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters demonstrated in Hong Kong for the eleventh weekend in a row.