China’s Social Media Campaign to Divide Hong Kong Should Worry Us All

Facebook and Twitter have made progress since 2016, but attackers still have the advantage

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
5 min readAug 19, 2019

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Members of the U.S. Hong Kong community protest against what they say is police brutality against demonstrators during the ongoing Hong Kong protests. Photo: Mark Ralston/Getty Images

OOne Facebook post showed a photo of Hong Kong protesters, their bodies overlaid with the carapaces of human-sized cockroaches. Another compared the demonstrators to ISIS terrorists. A tweet asked whether the protesters — who have been marching in the hundreds of thousands over the past couple months — were “crazy” or “taking benefits from the bad guys” and said they had no place in Hong Kong.

These posts were part of what Facebook and Twitter are calling a widespread, coordinated information campaign with links to the Chinese government. On Monday, the two social media companies disclosed evidence of the campaign in separate announcements, after working together to uncover it. (Twitter found it first and tipped off Facebook, according to Facebook’s release.)

This is the first time the companies have publicly accused Beijing of using social media to spread disinformation in Hong Kong, which is a part of China but governed separately from the rest of the country. However, it certainly isn’t the first time a national government has used U.S.-based social media to covertly influence politics. And it should serve as a warning that a problem that reared its head when Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election remains far from solved. If anything, the threat is more widespread than it initially seemed.

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook. Original image available here.

Twitter said it had identified and suspended 936 accounts originating in China 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.” These formed the core of a “larger, spammy network” of some 200,000 robo-accounts that Twitter has also suspended. The company said it had “reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”

Facebook said it removed five accounts, seven pages, and three groups, with a combined following of…

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