U.S. Markets closed

Twitter, Facebook move on Chinese accounts 'part of much larger conversation on disinformation'

Laurie Chen

Twitter and Facebook's suspension of accounts they said were spreading misinformation about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong is the latest move in their global crackdown on state-backed disinformation campaigns.

On Monday, Twitter said 936 banned accounts originating from China were "deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong" as part of a "coordinated state-backed operation", and violated the company's "platform manipulation policies" that forbid spam, coordinated activity and fake accounts.

Facebook released a statement the same day banning a small number of accounts, pages and groups involved in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" that it said were linked to "individuals associated with the Chinese government" based on an internal investigation.

Following US allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have been under pressure to stop the proliferation of fake news and misinformation on their platforms.

Facebook has cited "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" to shut down accounts and pages from countries including Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. Photo: AP alt=Facebook has cited "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" to shut down accounts and pages from countries including Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. Photo: AP

Starting last year, Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their purges of fake and suspicious accounts they claim are part of coordinated efforts by state-backed actors.

Facebook's claim of "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" for its latest ban on Chinese accounts has been used several times before to justify shutting down thousands of suspect accounts and pages from countries including Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India and the Philippines.

The term is used by the company to describe misinformation campaigns designed to deepen political divisions, according to the company's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher.

Some of the banned Facebook accounts have been linked to state media, the military and political parties.

For instance, more than 600 Facebook pages and accounts linked to India's opposition Congress party that criticised the ruling BJP were pulled shortly before the country's elections in April.

In March, nearly 2,000 accounts linked to Russia were banned for posting spam related to political issues affecting Ukraine such as the Russian annexation of Crimea.

"This is part of a much larger conversation on disinformation in general ... which got started in 2016 with the [Donald] Trump election," said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"There was a lot of controversy over to what extent Russia was behind the disinformation campaign to influence the US elections. In this case, China is singled out but they are not just picking on China out of the blue," he said.

"The Chinese government really started all of this in the first place, when they started blocking all foreign websites and media for spreading lies and rumours inside China. So let's not forget the other side of the picture," Tsui added.

Yik Chan Chin, a media and communications professor from Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, agreed that the bans did not intentionally target China, but said Twitter and Facebook did not provide enough evidence from their internal investigations to prove the accounts were linked to Beijing.

"I'm not entirely sure this is state-backed behaviour. They need to give us more evidence because this is a very serious allegation," Chin said. "They say that the accounts are from within China, but still, even [if they are] within China it doesn't mean they are state-backed."

She added that patriotic Chinese internet users, such as those on the Diba forum, frequently posted anti-protest content on Western social media platforms of their own free will.

Hong Kong has seen months of anti-government protests triggered by a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China.

A Chinese internet governance official, who declined to be named because of the issue's sensitivity, accused Twitter of using disinformation as a pretext to clamp down on pro-China views posted on the network by individuals.

"This is a group of patriotic youth gathered online to tell the world the truth, because Western media has been reporting on events in Hong Kong in a distorted way all throughout, ignoring the violence committed by the protesters," he said.

The official cited a 2016 Oxford University study that found "no evidence of pro-Chinese state automation on Twitter" while automation was "associated with anti-Chinese-state perspectives".

Similarly to Facebook, Twitter has suspended thousands of profiles from Russia, Iran and the US for what it calls "coordinated platform manipulation". Many of the accounts were targeted in the run-up to the US midterm elections in November.

In May and June 2018 alone, it suspended more than 70 million bots and spam accounts as part of a mass purge of misinformation, but did not specify which countries the accounts were linked to.

But Chin disputed Twitter's claim that its latest crackdown on Chinese accounts was due to their "undermining the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protest movement".

"I'm not sure whether they should take this political position. That's making a political argument. How can you say, as a media company or technology company, whether the protests are legitimate or not?" Chin said. "But I think their statement that the accounts have been suspended for violating their platform manipulation policies is quite justified."

In the latest move, Twitter also announced that it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media outlets, following a 2017 ban on adverts from Russia Today and Sputnik in response to allegations of Russian election interference.

"Fighting bias or the information war is very difficult for Chinese media, because it does not have a very high reputation or credibility," Chin said. "Even if they want to present the other side of the story, most people in the West would distrust them because they claim that it is state-controlled media ... regardless of whether the report is accurate or not."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.