Facebook and Twitter Say China Is Spreading Disinformation in Hong Kong

SAN FRANCISCO — 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 found evidence of just how active China has been in trying to sow discord.

The social media companies said they had discovered and taken down networks of accounts that had originated in mainland China, where both Facebook and Twitter 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 ISIS fighters.

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.

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 has been less visible about using Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation in the past, researchers have said.

“Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service,” Twitter said in a statement announcing the takedowns.

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 follow another march in Hong Kong on Sunday, which organizers said had brought out 1.7 million people, or nearly one in four of the island’s total population of more than seven million. It was the second-largest march of the movement, after a protest by nearly two million people on June 16.

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