Twitter and Facebook Remove Chinese-Backed Disinformation Campaigns Related to Hong Kong

In the modern, digital era, social media can be used as a powerful political weapon, a concept which, up till the Cambridge Analytica scandal, people hadn’t really taken seriously.

Case in point – when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was initially pressed on the platform’s potential role in the 2016 US Presidential Election, shortly after Donald Trump’s victory, Zuckerberg noted that:

Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way – I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

Since then we’ve seen Facebook add numerous measures to combat the same, while the platform has provided detailed reports on dozens of incidents of ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’, involving thousands of accounts, many of which had been found to be doing exactly what Zuck himself had labeled ‘pretty crazy’ at first blush.

It may seem harmless, but the reach and capacity of social networks is beyond any medium that has preceded it, which makes it a whole new battleground for political campaigners and government-backed groups.

And this week, we’ve been reminded of that capacity yet again.

On Monday, Twitter announced that it had detected a network of 936 accounts, originating from within China, which, in Twitter’s determination, 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.” 

Hong Kong has been the site of ongoing protests over Chinese interference in local law, with millions of Hong Kongers taking to the streets to voice their opposition to Chinese encroachment on various fronts. In more recent weeks, the protests have turned increasingly violent, while China has also amassed military forces on the Hong Kong border, a potential threat of what’s to come.

Now, China also appears to be using social media as a means to further provoke tensions.

As per Twitter:

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests.”

Those messages have essentially incited violence and retaliation against Hong Kong protesters, seeking to inflame the opposing groups.

Twitter HK example

Twitter passed on its findings to Facebook, which has also announced its detection and removal of a group of Pages engaging in the same coordinated activities on its network.

Facebook Hong Kong protests example

Twitter then followed up its initial action with an even broader response, banning all ads from state-based media ongoing.

“Going forward, we will not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. Any affected accounts will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, just not our advertising products.”

That ban will relate to content determined to be seeking to influence public opinion based on political affiliation: 

“We will be making policy determinations on the basis of critical issues of media freedom and independence, such as control of editorial content, financial ownership, influence or interference over broadcasters, editors, and journalists, direct and indirect exertion of political pressure, and/or control over the production and distribution process.”

Both Twitter and Facebook are already banned in China, but the moves set a precedent for enforcing such actions moving forward, and once again underline just how significant a role social media can play in the distribution of political content, and mobilization of activists.

From a broader, social media industry perspective, the actions once again highlight how quickly the medium is evolving. Once considered a trendy toy for kids, social media has grown to become the most influential media platform of the modern age, capable of influencing significant political and societal shifts via hashtags, memes and updates.  

It seems harmless, the things you do, the actions you take within social apps. But there’s far more to it, and these actions once again underline that social media’s influence cannot, and should not, be downplayed.

That means that governments need to take social media seriously – and in that sense, it could eventually lead to increased regulation and oversight, which could alter the entire social landscape as we know it. There have already been calls to break-up Facebook, and as the platforms seek to enforce higher levels of editorial oversight in order to stem the tide of concerning movements, there will be more significant shifts coming.

What the exact impacts of that will be, it’s impossible to say, but it’s clear that social media is now being taken more seriously in this respect, and its role will come under more scrutiny moving forward.  

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