Report: China Used Twitter, Facebook to Sow Disinformation on Hong Kong Protests

  • “Actors linked to the Chinese government may have been running covert information operations on Western social media platforms for at least two years.” the report finds.
  • Compared with Russia's involvement in US elections in 2016, China's campaign against Hong Kong's anti-extradition movement was "relatively small and hastily assembled."
  • Prior to the Hong Kong protests, Beijing-linked spam accounts targeted Chinese dissidents in fake news campaigns.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a new report on Tuesday, based on Twitter’s data released last month, about China’s intention to influence Hong Kong’s anti-extradition (or “reverse delivery”) campaign. Among the findings, the Chinese government has spent the past two years intending to spread fake news targeting specific people across several social media platforms.

The report titled “Tweeting Through the Great Firewall” found that “actors linked to the Chinese government may have been running covert information operations on Western social media platforms for at least two years.” They include campaigns against dissidents Guo Wengui and Gui Minhai. In past cases, these accounts typically spread fake news on specific targets on social media in a small and loosely organized form. The report compares these activities with Russia’s approach to US elections in 2016.

Gui Minhai, also known as Michael Gui, is a Swedish-born Chinese book publisher. Gui authored around 200 books during his ten-year career under the pen-name Ah Hai. Gui was abducted twice by Chinese state security agents since 2015 for distributing unapproved books and breaking unspecified laws.

The report states, “these network actions mostly rely on so-called ‘spam accounts’ to spread fake news. Since most of these tweets are in Chinese, we think their target group is Hong Kong people or a Chinese community overseas.”

According to the analysis, the Chinese government adopted this approach in 2017. The attacks launched by the Hong Kong movement show that the Chinese government is trying to launch information warfare on social media on a large scale.

“Building that kind of influence infrastructure takes time and the situation in Hong Kong was evolving too rapidly, so it appears that the actors behind this campaign effectively took a short-cut by buying established accounts with many followers,” the report said.

The analysis of this report found that the tweets of these accounts mainly condemned the demonstrators in Hong Kong, expressed support for the Hong Kong government, and continued to disseminate conspiracy theories, saying that Western countries may intervene in this movement in China. Compared with Russia’s involvement in US elections in 2016, Australian researchers have found that China’s skills in this campaign against Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement were “relatively small and hastily assembled.”

The Australian team found that most of the accounts used by the Chinese government to disseminate fake news were created to promote different types of content, and this allowed the Chinese government to easily purchase these accounts for information campaigns. By analyzing the strategy and content of this wave of information warfare, the Australian team also found that the Chinese government did not expect that the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong could generate such great momentum, and Beijing rushed in to respond in a short period of time. The use of these “spam accounts” would launch a messaging war against Hong Kong’s demonstrations without a complete strategy.

Guo Wengui, also known as Guo Wen Gui, Guo Haoyun, and Miles Kwok, is a Chinese billionaire businessman who later became a political activist and controls Beijing Zenith Holdings. Guo fell out with Chinese Communist Party leadership and fled to the United States in 2014.

Also, the data analysis results of this report also show that before the “spam accounts” moved to target the anti-extradition campaign in Hong Kong, Guo Wengui was the number one target for the most accounts. According to the data, since April 2017, 618 accounts have sent 39,000 tweets about Guo Wengui, and this wave of information has continued until July 2019.

These accounts were launched between January 23, 2018, and February 23, 2018, intensively against the Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, who was taken away by the Chinese government from Hong Kong. The time when these accounts were issued coincided with the time spent by ordinary people, and this shows that the Chinese government is using these accounts to launch a messaging war, in an attempt to launch an offensive in a very organized way.

Based on these analysis results, the Australian team believes that the Chinese government has deliberately targeted the “Chinese government’s political opponents” when it launched a messaging war on these social media platforms.

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Joyce Davis

My history goes back to 2002 and I  worked as a reporter, interviewer, news editor, copy editor, managing editor, newsletter founder, almanac profiler, and news radio broadcaster.

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