China has aggressively stirred up anti-Western and nationalist sentiment using state and social media as part of an information war in the Hong Kong protests.
On Monday, Facebook and Twitter said they had discovered and taken down networks of accounts that had originated in mainland China, where both social networks are blocked. The accounts had posted that the Hong Kong protesters were acting violently and accused them of ulterior motives. One Facebook post likened the protesters to Islamic State fighters.
The takedowns of the China-linked accounts mark an escalation in the global disinformation wars. In 2015 and 2016, Russia pioneered a disinformation playbook when it used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media services to disseminate inflammatory messages intended to divide Americans in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, many other countries — including Bangladesh, Iran and Venezuela — have also turned to Facebook and Twitter to sow discord at home and abroad.
China had been less visible about using Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation in the past, researchers have said.
"Covert, manipulative behaviours have no place on our service," Twitter said in a statement announcing the takedowns.
Facebook said it removed seven pages, three Facebook Groups and five accounts involved in the disinformation, while Twitter, which has served as a gathering place for protesters, took down 936 accounts. Twitter said it would also ban state-backed media from promoting tweets after China Daily, and other state-backed publications, placed ads on the service that suggested the Hong Kong protesters were sponsored by Western interests and were becoming violent.
Facebook said it had been tipped off to the activity by Twitter. "We're constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don't want our services to be used to manipulate people," Facebook said.
The actions followed another march in Hong Kong on Sunday, which organisers said had brought out 1.7 million people, or nearly 1 in 4 of the island's total population of more than 7 million. It was the second-largest march of the movement, after a protest by nearly 2 million people June 16.
The tumult has increasingly become one of positioning and public image. China has aggressively stoked anti-Western and nationalist sentiments around the protests and begun branding the demonstrations as a prelude to terrorism. Hong Kong workers and billionaires have also jumped into the fray. In ads in several local newspapers, tycoon Li Ka Shing recently pushed readers to "love China, love Hong Kong, love yourself" and "overcome anger with love." And employees at accounting firms in Hong Kong have taken out ads supporting the demonstrations.
Written by: Kate Conger
Photographs by: Lam Yik Fei
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