China is desperate to quash political dissent, resorting to a network of fake accounts across Twitter and Facebook spreading misinformation about the protests in Hong Kong, according to a new report from CBS News. Despite these platforms removing these trolls in the hundreds of thousands, big tech’s routine support for authoritarians remains a problem for informed discourse and digital freedom across the world.
“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 in a news release Monday, revealing over 200,000+ others were based across mainland China. In turn, Facebook also announced it removed “seven Pages, three Groups and five Facebook accounts involved in coordinated, inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong.”
In another report for Bloomberg, Twitter acknowledged there was a “significant state-backed information operation” pushed on its platform, “focused on the situation in Hong Kong,” suspending 936 accounts “from within the People’s Republic of China (PRC)” and thousands of others with a “more spammy” nature. The company alleges the actions echo actions by the Russia government during the 2016 election, alleging this too was a state-backed operation specifically designed to promote“political discord” and “undermine the legitimacy” of the protest movement.
This is especially curious since Twitter is actually banned in China, which can only be accessed through the use of VPNs and other anti-surveillance technology. Twitter reveals their state-backed claim is based on the use of “specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China,” thus linking disinformation with the government.
“They frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong,” stated Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, in a recent statement. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.” How Twitter and Facebook managed to ignore state-based disinformation on its platform, pushed over the course of 11 weeks since the protests began, is the million-dollar question for the masters of the universe.
Of course, not all big tech giants operate with the same level of incompetence. Isaac Mao, a prominent Chinese internet researcher, told CBS News that even though a smaller company like Twitter did a “good job to make it serious and target it accurately”, Facebook’s was considered a “joke” since Diba, China’s biggest internet troll group targetting the protests, is “still up running there without being touched.” The report details the fascistic rhetoric of the pages, such as describing Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors as “cockroaches” almost no better than terrorist fighters from ISIS (particularly egregious given China’s detainment of Muslims upwards of millions).
For context, what initially began the protest was an extradition bill which would effectively allow China greater legal jurisdiction over the Hong Kong territory, which has since turned into a weeks-long international crisis pertaining to the government’s overreach police brutality, and democratic reforms impossible to pass without the support of outside forces. According to Think Progress, there has been an estimated 1.7 million people — nearly 25% of the city — who have defied police bans to protest for their own democratic freedom. To knowingly enable government tyranny is an unspeakable wrong, showcasing the fundamental difference between Twitter and Facebook.
It’s one thing to ban accounts for the sake of media optics, pinky swearing it’ll never happen again, but it’s another to announce policies changes to actively suppress authoritarian disinformation efforts, giving Twitter the advantage through banning advertising from state-controlled news media, specifically those pushing propaganda that Hong Kong’s freedom protesters were becoming violent against law enforcement and innocent civilians.
Facebook can only offer platitudes as Gleicher states they’re “continually improving to stay ahead, which means building better technology, hiring more people and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies.” And once again, the cycle of signing away responsibility through a PR statement continues.
“If China’s disinformation campaign had begun earlier in this protest movement, then Hong Kong people might have been influenced, but people have immunity now,” concluded Bonnie Cheung, one of the co-leaders of Hong Kong’s Civil Humans Right Front (CHRF) that organized the four Sunday marches. “As for international audiences, they need to be cautious about what they read online.” And it’s wrong to just leave the marketplace to the whims of companies who through their centralised market shares and audiences, can’t possibly improve until further reform.
As we reported in the past, Facebook is no stranger to inept content moderation and exploitative partnerships. These include its unsecured database of 1.5 million emails and passwords, allowing advertisers access to users’ “shadow contact info,” allowing device makers access to private profiles, the site’s spyware VPN used to secretly surveil minors, its media suppression of independent outlets after mainstream partnerships, its non-consent facial recognition software database, its political advertising systems with disastrous fraud problems and even bribing editors of Wikipedia to cover up such scandals from the public.
When investigations by the Intercept and BuzzFeed News show the state has routinely paid ads on these tech companies to excuse their bad anti-Muslim and anti-democratic behaviour, it takes either bold leadership or good policy to ensure interests don’t conflict with the people. Chris Hughes, the former co-founder of Facebook, condemned his former platform for repeatedly framing itself as both the arbiter of “neutral platform for people to communicate” and a private platform “entitled to First Amendment protection” exempt from accountable content flow. When Pew Research Center shows over two-third of all U.S. adults (68%) get their news on social media, it’s not enough to just promise the Chinese state’s money and influence won’t have influential sway. We need assurances and only Twitter seems to be offering an olive branch.
“An era of accountability for Facebook and other monopolies may be beginning,” Hughes concludes. “Collective anger is growing, and a new cohort of leaders has begun to emerge. On Capitol Hill, Representative David Cicilline has taken a special interest in checking the power of monopolies, and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ted Cruz have joined Senator Warren in calling for more oversight. Economists like Jason Furman, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, are speaking out about monopolies, and a host of legal scholars like Lina Khan, Barry Lynn and Ganesh Sitaraman are plotting a way forward. This movement of public servants, scholars and activists deserves our support. Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.”
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