Hong Kong Protests: China Accused Of Using Fake Social Media Accounts

Aug 20, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 11:23 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

China is using U.S. social media platforms to spread disinformation about pro-democracy protests that have been going on in Hong Kong. That, anyway, is what Twitter and Facebook say. And this week, those two platforms took down nearly a thousand accounts that they said were being used by Chinese state actors to spread that false information. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng has been following this. She's on the line now. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what do we know about what has been going on with these accounts and with the misinformation?

FENG: Well, Twitter says that it was tipped off to this state-backed activity, and not only did it take down the accounts, it said it was not going to take anymore state media advertising money from any outlet, and then went to Facebook and said, the same thing is happening on your platform. And Facebook now says it took down seven pages, five accounts and three groups. Remember that both platforms are still under scrutiny in the U.S. for not doing enough to stop the spread of Russian disinformation during the last presidential elections. So this time, they preemptively took action to at least shut down some of these Chinese accounts.

Beijing today has defended its actions, though, and a foreign ministry spokesperson implied today that the accounts were created by overseas Chinese students and said that those students had the right to express their point of view on any social media outlet.

KING: OK. Just quickly, is there any evidence that we know of that they were created by students overseas?

FENG: Some of them certainly described themselves as students and included personal posts, but it's unclear whether they are real accounts made by real people.

KING: We just don't know yet. OK. So these state-backed accounts, what were they posting, exactly?

FENG: They're posting the pro-Beijing view on Hong Kong protests. They're sharing content that compares protests to the Islamic State, ISIS. They're sharing images that allegedly show protesters attacking police, harassing travelers at the Hong Kong airport, even false information about protesters being paid off by American agents. Here's a really slick English language video that was made by China's state broadcaster and that's still being shared widely on Twitter bot accounts that are trying to garner sympathy for Hong Kong's police force.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We will allow a certain amount of damage. We will allow a certain amount of disruption to major roads before we deploy. And that is an incredible amount of tolerance for an international city police force.

FENG: So everything I've just described, that video, that's the commonly held narrative that's being described within China. But now China is trying to make that narrative global, and it's doing so through Twitter and Facebook. Keep in mind that these two platforms are blocked in China so anyone who can see them ostensibly would be outside of China. And data released by Twitter this week shows that the accounts in question were posting in as many as 10 languages, including Spanish and English.

Some of the accounts are really new. They appear to have been created just as the protests were taking off. But some of them are more than a decade old, including one that had 180,000 followers and posted both anti-Hong Kong and pro-President Trump tweets.

KING: So why is China doing this, exactly? What's the end game?

FENG: Well, it invests a lot in managing perceptions at home. Not just with the Hong Kong protests, but with any kind of politically sensitive event. But as China's become more influential on the global stage, it's realized that it's had to manage perceptions outside of China. And they've globalized very traditional propaganda channels, like newspapers, television. But now the Internet's given them this really powerful tool to amplify those efforts, like on Twitter and Facebook that we've seen this week.

KING: Yeah. NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thanks so much.

FENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.