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Twitter and Facebook suspend accounts for being part of China-backed campaign to disrupt Hong Kong protests

Owen Churchill

The social-media platform Twitter has suspended hundreds of accounts alleged to be part of a Chinese government-backed campaign to sow political discord in Hong Kong, the company announced on Monday.

The action came as Facebook took similar action, removing seven pages, three groups and five accounts involved in what Facebook called "coordinated inauthentic behaviour as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong".

In all, Twitter said that 936 accounts originating from within China have been suspended for a number of violations of the company's "platform manipulation policies," including spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts and ban evasion.

"Covert, manipulative behaviours have no place on our service," Twitter said. "They violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built."

The social media activity of the suspended accounts, which shared both English- and Chinese-language material, were part of efforts to undermine the "legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground", said Twitter.

"Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation," said Monday's announcement.

Facebook's investigation was prompted by a "tip" from Twitter, Facebook head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher said in a statement on Monday.

"We will continue monitoring and will take action if we find additional violations," said Gleicher, adding that Facebook had shared the findings with other industry partners and law enforcement agencies.

Examples of the "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" identified by Facebook included posts that compared protesters to cockroaches, accused journalists of corruption and of colluding with "rioters", and claimed that protesters, not police, had been responsible for the widely reported injury of a medic who may lose the use of one eye.

The young woman was injured when she was struck by a pellet fired by police during demonstrations in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood earlier this month.

Also on Monday, Twitter announced that it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities.

Though its statement did not single out Chinese state media, government-backed news agency Xinhua has recently utilised Twitter's "promoted tweet" service to expand the reach of posts related to the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.

In one such promoted tweet published over the weekend, Xinhua tweeted that "[people from] all walks of life in Hong Kong called for a brake to be put on the blatant violence and for order to be restored."

Twitter said on Monday that affected accounts would be given a 30-day grace period to withdraw from the platform's advertising products, after which the company would "stringently enforce these policies."

A determination of what accounts would be affected by the ban would be made based on factors including financial ownership, control of editorial content and direct or indirect exertion of political pressure, Twitter said.

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.