Twitter, Facebook Ban Hundreds of Accounts Spreading Disinformation About Hong Kong Protests

The suspended Twitter accounts “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong,” the company announced on Monday

Pro-democracy protesters rally in Hong Kong's Victoria Park on August 18, 2019
Pro-democracy protesters rally in Hong Kong's Victoria Park on August 18. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Facebook and Twitter have collectively banned hundreds of accounts originating from mainland China (and in some cases linked to the Chinese government) that they say have spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests, the companies announced on Monday.

Twitter suspended 936 accounts 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,” according to a blog post from Twitter Safety. Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, Nathaniel Gleicher, announced that the platform had removed five accounts, seven pages, and three Facebook groups that “engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts,” posed as news organizations, and directed users to “off-platform news sites” to disseminate their content. The accounts were linked to “individuals associated with the Chinese government” who had attempted to conceal their identities, according to Gleicher. Altogether, the removed Facebook pages and groups reached about 17,700 people.

Facebook and Twitter, along with other U.S. tech giants like Google and YouTube, are banned in mainland China. Twitter said that many of the accounts they suspended used virtual private networks — which can mask a user’s IP address to access banned sites — to tweet; others with unblocked IP addresses were found to be “originating in mainland China.”

Some of the Facebook posts, according to Gleicher’s announcement, compared the pro-democracy protesters with ISIS fighters and cockroaches. Meanwhile, the tweets scrutinized by Twitter attempted to discredit the protests.

The announcements coincide with a BuzzFeed News report, also published on Monday, that reports Twitter and Facebook have allowed nearly 50 ads promoting the Communist Party’s rhetoric painting the Hong Kong protestors as a violent minority to run on Chinese state-run media accounts in the last few weeks. On Sunday, an estimated 1.7 million people — or nearly 25 percent of Hong Kong’s population — peacefully protested despite heavy rain. The ongoing protests, which have lasted for several months, were first initiated after the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would extradite suspected criminals to mainland China, a law that pro-democracy protesters see as heightening the Chinese government’s control over Hong Kong. The protests have since grown into a larger fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy (Hong Kong has largely been autonomous from China and allows its citizens more civil liberties like press freedom, open internet access, and the right to free assembly under the “one country, two systems” principle, which is set to last until 2047).

While the majority of pro-democracy protesters have been non-violent, the number of violent clashes between police and protesters have increased and taken place in heavily trafficked hubs like train stations and the Hong Kong International Airport.

As for the disinformation campaigns on social media, both Twitter and Facebook said that they’d continue to monitor suspicious behavior on their platforms.

“Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” Twitter said. “We will continue to be vigilant, learning from this network and proactively enforcing our policies to serve the public conversation. We hope that by being transparent and open we will empower further learning and public understanding of these nefarious tactics.”