Twitter, Facebook scrub coordinated activity targeting Hong Kong demonstrations

Pro-democracy demonstrators gather in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. (Flickr/Studio Incendo)

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Facebook and Twitter collectively have removed hundreds of accounts that were participating in a state-backed information campaign against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Twitter on Monday said it suspended 936 accounts that “were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” from inside mainland China. The social media company said it has “reliable evidence to support” the conclusion the government was behind the effort. Facebook announced its own removal of seven pages, three groups and five accounts that altogether had fewer than 20,000 followers.

“Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests,” Twitter said in a blog post.

“The accounts we are sharing today represent the most active portions of this campaign; a larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts – many created following our initial suspensions – were proactively suspended before they were substantially active on the service.”

Twitter also announced it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media. That decision follows the revelation that China’s Xinhua news agency, Beijing’s official press arm, had purchased advertisements on Twitter meant to disparage demonstrators in Hong Kong.

An estimated 1.7 million people on Sunday marched through Hong Kong as part of a peaceful protest, calling for reforms such as the removal of an extradition law and the removal of the Beijing-appointed chief executive of the semi-autonomous region.

Many of the 936 accounts removed by Twitter had tens of thousands of followers, and appeared to be users who were posting from the U.S. or Europe. One page, @kojishikokukohn, had 116,484 followers and claimed to be from Chicago. A number of the accounts had creation dates going back to 2012 or 2013, though more recent accounts also were used as part of the campaign.

“As Twitter is blocked in [the People’s Republic of China], many of these accounts accessed Twitter using VPNs,” the company said. “However, some accounts accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China.”

Following Twitter’s announcement, Facebook said it had removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” against Hong Kong. Roughly 15,500 accounts followed one or more of the since deactivated pages, according to Facebook, while another 2,200 were in at least one of the groups.

Facebook said it detected its activity based on a tip from Twitter. The posts on Facebook compared demonstrators to cockroaches, or compared protesters to members of the terrorist group ISIS. Another message falsely implied reporters who have been filming police brutality only turned on their camera after protesters antagonized police.

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Asia, China, coordinated inauthentic behavior, Facebook, Hong Kong, international, social media, Twitter, Umbrella Movement, VPN, VPNs
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