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China sows disinformation on Hong Kong using porn accounts on Twitter

Echo Huang
The Twitter application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017.

China can’t control Twitter the way it does with domestic social networks in its attempt to build an alternative universe of facts about the months-long Hong Kong protests. Seeking to find a way to wrest control of the narrative, Beijing has stepped up its efforts to sow discord and disinformation through some interesting methods on Twitter.

A report from Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published today (Sept. 3) said that some Twitter accounts at the center of Beijing’s recent online campaign had been tweeting a range a content including pornography, soccer, and K-pop prior to disseminating content about Hong Kong. At least two of the four accounts with the most retweets were related to pornography.

Those accounts were among the 936 China-linked accounts that Twitter suspended last month because they were attempting to “sow political discord in Hong Kong.” Twitter made the data about those accounts public.

“Such accounts are readily and cheaply available for purchase from resellers, often for a few dollars or less,” said ASPI in the report. The accounts tweeted information about Hong Kong without aiming their message at any audience in particular as a sort of “marketing spam network.”

Whoever purchased those accounts was likely hoping that their large follower count could make the content coming from those accounts look more legitimate, said Elise Thomas, a co-author of the report. “When you scroll through Twitter and you click on them and see it was made last week, it looks suspicious, but if it’s five years old and has 3,000 followers or 30,000 followers then it looks much more legitimate. That’s why people buy accounts like that.”

Still, the campaign appears primitive and lacks subtlety. “You scratch the surface and you see something is not right. For example, if someone who clicks on one of those former porn bots tweeting about Hong Kong protests just scrolls down a bit, they would have seen a huge number of tweets about porn, which would have made them a little bit more suspicious,” Thomas explained.

Some of the accounts have in fact been in use as part of a pro-China campaign since before the Hong Kong protests broke out this year. Some have been used to target China’s most-wanted businessman, Guo Wengui, who lives in exile in the US, since 2017. Others target Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller who vanished from Thailand and was later detained in China. The accounts tweeted in different languages including English, Spanish, Indonesian, Portuguese, and Chinese. But “the predominant use of Chinese language suggests that the target audiences were Hong Kongers and the overseas diaspora,” said the report.

It’s unclear how effective those campaigns are when Chinese people living overseas mostly get their news from various Chinese news outlets and chat app WeChat. However, recognizing that many people who are tweeting about Hong Kong—including the protesters themselves—are taking their message to Twitter to garner international attention, “the Chinese government or whoever is behind this campaign” also has to get on the platform as a result of the “shifting battleground for information over the narrative of the Hong Kong protest,” said Thomas.

It’s likely China will continue amplifying its propaganda campaign using foreign social networks for other issues beyond Hong Kong, said Thomas. At least three state-affiliated organizations have in recent months spent a total of more than $1 million to grow overseas social media accounts since June, when the Hong Kong protests began in opposition to a bill that would allow the city to extradite criminal suspects to the mainland. What made the Twitter campaign particularly conspicuous, however, was the lack of sophistication, said Thomas.

“It’s the one that got caught. Maybe there are much better campaigns out there,” she said. “Or it could be (that it’s the) first time they are dipping their toes into operating a western social media platform. That’s why it’s so clumsy.

 

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