August 22, 2019
IntelBrief: Beijing’s Bots and Disinformation in Hong Kong
Social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, were lauded during the Arab Spring for their ability to help pro-democracy protesters organize and mobilize while broadcasting their messages to the world. Social media was also a powerful tool used to document the crimes and atrocities of violent state security services tasked with quelling dissent. But autocratic governments are now using these same platforms to disparage demonstrators, divide protest movements, and confuse sympathetic onlookers. China has taken a page from Russia’s playbook as Beijing wages an online disinformation campaign aimed at inflating support for Hong Kong’s ruling authorities. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong represent the most significant public opposition to Chinese authority since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
For eleven weeks, protesters have organized massive demonstrations across Hong Kong pushing back against China’s authoritarian rule. On August 18, the number of protesters was estimated at 1.7 million people. While the demonstrations have remained relatively peaceful, police have sporadically cracked down on protesters, sometimes deploying tear gas and bean bag projectiles. China has also repositioned some military assets in a show of force. In the meantime, Beijing has deployed a relentless disinformation campaign on Twitter and Facebook powered by unknown numbers of bots, trolls, and so-called 'sock puppets.' The campaign has sought to portray Hong Kong’s unrest as the work of meddlesome foreigners seeking to intervene in China’s affairs and influence its population, while peaceful protesters have been smeared as 'terrorists’ and compared to Islamic State militants.
On August 19, Twitter announced it had shut down nearly 1000 accounts operated by the Chinese government that engaged in anti-protest propaganda. Facebook also announced the removal of numerous pages, groups, and accounts deemed to be involved in 'coordinated inauthentic behavior.’ 'Coordinated inauthentic behavior’ is becoming more common as Facebook attempts, with mixed success, to decrease the amount of deliberately false and misleading accounts operating on its platform. Unlike Twitter, Facebook prohibits anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, although this is no panacea. Both state and non-state actors engaged in disinformation campaigns rely on real accounts that can be compromised and manipulated for nefarious purposes.
It remains unclear how successful China’s online disinformation campaign has been in Hong Kong, as capabilities to accurately measure its effects are nascent and often proprietary. In mainland China, where the Chinese Communist Party strictly controls access to social media platforms, the hashtag 'Remove the Mask' was trending on the popular social media network Weibo. The hashtag was reportedly created by the state-run newspaper People’s Daily and was intended to be critical of protesters for covering their faces, suggesting links to crime and terrorism. China has not shied away from public pressure, even forcing the CEO of Cathay Pacific airlines to resign after some of the company’s employees openly supported the protests. As the protests continue, China’s behavior will likely grow more aggressive in both the physical and virtual realms, using on-the-ground actions to complement an intensifying cyber campaign characterized by disinformation, deflection, and obfuscation.
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