Twitter, Facebook, Google and Chinese misinformation

Twitter and Facebook have blocked major Chinese news outlets with ties to the state from advertising on their platforms. Both social networks say that they’re putting a stop to a huge “state-backed” campaign of misinformation

For months now, thousands of Hong Kong citizens have been protesting against a proposed government bill which will allow extradition from the territory to the Chinese mainland.

If passed, the bill would mean that the “one country, two systems” arrangement, which accorded political and legal autonomy to Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, would no longer be in effect.

Critics of the bill fear that it would undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system. They also argue that Hong Kong citizens and foreign nationals would have been at risk of imprisonment, as it could be used to target those who speak out against the government.

The bill was suspended in June as, since March, the protests had become significantly larger. Despite the suspension, protests have continued to gather momentum and have now shifted focus, by tackling the larger issue of democratic reform, as well as the demand for an investigation into the alleged police brutality during demonstrations.

Last Sunday saw one of the largest demonstrations to date, with 1.7 million people turning out, according to organisers. Chinese police, on the other hand, have reported a much lower figure of 128,000 people, counting only those at an officially sanctioned protest. So, what do Facebook and Twitter have to do with all this?

Twitter and Facebook found state-backed campaigns of disinformation
Images posted by suspended accounts: ‘Protesters. ISIS fighters. What’s the difference?’ & ‘Cockroaches’ / Credit: Facebook Newsroom

The social angle

The protests in China have been gaining a lot of attention and, as one might expect, social media has been taken advantage of during coverage of the demonstrations.

Twitter and Facebook have reason to believe that certain accounts on both platforms were responsible for Chinese misinformation. The juiciest bit is that these accounts are part of what they describe as a “state-backed Chinese misinformation campaign.”

Twitter claims that they’ve removed 936 accounts which they said were being used to “sow political discord in Hong Kong.” According to Twitter the accounts originated in mainland China and were a collective effort to subvert the “legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement”.

The 936 accounts Twitter removed were not the only ones in connection with the Hong Kong protests. Twitter said that 200,000 additional accounts that aided the spread of inaccurate reporting were suspended before becoming more or less active again.

“Based on our intensive investigations,” the company said in a statement, “we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests. We will continue to be vigilant, learning from this network and proactively enforcing our policies to serve the public conversation.”

Facebook had been told about the threat by Twitter and also scanned their platform for irregular behaviour. They too had to remove “seven Pages, three Groups and five Facebook accounts.”

“They frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cyber-security Policy at Facebook

Why is Twitter so concerned?

It may seem like an unfair question, but the reason we’re asking it is because Twitter has allowed China’s Xinhua news agency to buy sponsored posts on their network.

The news agency is proudly backed by China, so why is Twitter putting in the effort now? Well, after taking a real beating from media outlets and users last weekend Twitter decided to crack down on the Chinese misinformation dilemma. Twitter announced on Monday that they will no longer allow such harmful sponsored posts.

In a statement, the social network said: “Going forward, we will not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. Any affected accounts will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, just not our advertising products.”

According to Dave Lee of the BBC, the new policy will not apply to “taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters.”

Now that researchers have started to investigate flagged Twitter accounts, they’ve found that some of them date as far back as 2007 and have changed their activity over the years. Others they have found have been less than a year old.

“A number of these accounts move through numerous tools and many languages, switching after long breaks. [It] suggests at least some of the old/high-follower ones were purchased, or potentially rented. But to contrast with the ‘Russia playbook’, these weren’t carefully-aged, well-developed persona accounts that worked narratives or built relationships with influencers.”

Renee DiResta, a Mozilla fellow in Media, Misinformation and Trust

As for Facebook, they said that around 15,500 accounts had been following one or more pages that they labelled as “inauthentic.” According to Facebook, around 2,200 accounts had joined at least one of the flagged groups on their platform.

What’s Google’s stance in all this?

Google is behaving a little shadier about the situation than the other two. After Twitter and Facebook took the lead in removing certain accounts and advertisements from their platforms everyone’s attention turned to Google.

In June, Google told Reuters that state-owned media companies had the same rights as anyone else to advertise on their platform.

Recently, however, Google started taking some action on YouTube. Google has managed to shut down 210 YouTube channels so far. They believe that these channels were part of a “coordinated” attempt to post material about the protests in Hong Kong. They’ve also admitted that the move has come after the announcements made by Twitter and Facebook.

In a press-release, Google said: “Earlier this week, as part of our ongoing efforts to combat coordinated influence operations, we disabled 210 channels on YouTube when we discovered channels in this network behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter.”

Now for the weird bit. If you haven’t noticed already Google fails to mention the Chinese Government in all this. They never explicitly say that the Chinese government is responsible for the now-closed accounts. Weird. Facebook and Twitter have openly agreed on this but Google seems to be refraining. Maybe it’s because it’s not their opinion, who knows. Google didn’t even bother to tell anyone why the accounts they closed were closed.

When asked by a BBC journalist about whether Google holds the same opinion as Twitter about Chinese misinformation Google would not comment.

At the moment it doesn’t look like Google will be changing their minds about refusing advertisement services to companies that want to misinform.

As for the protests themselves, it’s now their 12th week running. Today, Hong Kong police fired upon brick-throwing protestors with tear gas and water cannons. Despite the clash, the vast majority of protestors marched peacefully.

Social media platforms have been used to take advantage of sensitive political situations for years now. The Trump election is a great example of this: ties to Russian interference surfaced not long after his inauguration. Twitter and Facebook claim that they’re constantly monitoring suspicious activity to avoid these situations.

Social media platforms have a responsibility to make sure people receive fair and just information free from bias.

Twitter and Facebook have said moving forward that they will be clamping down on any suspicious accounts and will tighten their account and post monitoring.

UPDATE: 4th September 2019. This article refers to a proposed extradition bill, which was temporarily suspended in June. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has since announced that the bill has now been withdrawn entirely.

Nisa Hussain

Nisa is an experienced writer in the technology industry. She is the owner of the blog Tech Leak which she launched in 2018. When she’s not writing, Nisa is usually studying or reading.

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