China accused of stirring strife in Hong Kong

Social media accounts pulled for ‘disinformation’

Anti-extradition demonstrators march for democratic reforms in Hong Kong.
Anti-extradition demonstrators march for democratic reforms in Hong Kong.
Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Twitter and Facebook have accused the Chinese government of backing a social media campaign to discredit Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and sow political discord in the city.

The American tech giants announced on Monday they had suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts linked to the campaign, while Twitter said it had shut down about 200,000 more before they could inflict any damage.

“These accounts 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,” Twitter said, referring to the accounts it shut down.

Facebook said some of the posts from accounts it banned compared the protesters in Hong Kong with Islamic State group militants, branded them “cockroaches” and alleged they planned to kill people using slingshots.

Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous southern Chinese city and one of the world’s most important financial hubs, is in the grip of an unprecedented political crisis in which millions of people have taken to the streets demanding greater freedoms.

China’s communist rulers have warned they may be prepared to deploy force to quell the unrest, and likened violent protesters to terrorists.

However, they have publicly largely left the city’s leaders and police force to try to resolve the crisis.

Behind the scenes online though, the Chinese government is seeking to sway public opinion about Hong Kong, according to Twitter and Facebook.

“We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change,” Twitter said.

It said it had pulled 936 accounts originating in China that were spreading disinformation.

“We have reliable evidence to support that this is a co-ordinated state-backed operation.”

Chinese state media hit back at the social media giants.

The People’s Daily reported the pulling of the pages on Weibo, using the hashtag #IsThisClaimedFreedomofSpeech?

Twitter and Facebook are banned in China.

Because of the bans, many of the fake accounts were accessed using virtual private networks that give a deceptive picture of the user’s location, Twitter said.

“However, some accounts accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China.”

Facebook said it had acted on a tip-off from Twitter, removing seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts that had about 15,500 followers.

“Our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Facebook said.

In Hong Kong, the moves were welcomed.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok speculated the disinformation campaign could be the tip of the iceberg.

Asked about the closure of the accounts, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said: “I am not aware of the specific situation.”

On Tuesday, Britain’s foreign office said it was “extremely concerned” by reports that a Hong Kong consulate employee had been detained by mainland Chinese authorities on his way back to the city.

Geng said: “I am not aware of the relevant situation.”

A widely circulated social media agenda for protesters in Hong Kong lists peaceful actions across the week.

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