Influence operations are not limited to Russia, as evidenced by the Chinese efforts to cast the Hong Kong protests as tantamount to the equivalent of a terrorist-backed activity. On Aug. 19, Twitter and Facebook both took to their blogs and revealed how they were attempting to clean up their own houses concerning the Chinese disinformation and influence operations.
Twitter and Chinese Accounts
Twitter published reams of information in spreadsheet format to allow third parties to dissect the information and draw their own conclusions. The company said its analytics team fingered 936 accounts they determined were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.” Twitter continued, “This is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
Why would China wish to use Twitter, an entity that is banned in China?
The audience for China’s state-sponsored efforts are not the mainland Chinese, but those who are in Hong Kong and abroad. The intent is to paint the protests in the least favorable light with extended family and colleagues, in the hopes that those who aren’t in the thick of it will put pressure on those who are protesting in Hong Kong.
Twitter provided examples of the type of posting these accounts were producing. One such post, from “Dream News,” attempted to show the foreign hand involved in the protests.
Facebook and Chinese Accounts
Facebook, after receiving a tip from Twitter, looked into its own network and found ample examples of offensive content. Indeed, many of the accounts on Facebook that were sharing information were identified as being directly associated with those on Twitter.
According to Facebook, it removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts (which, to this jaded eye, seems like a low number) that were covertly associated with the PRC government. The accounts had varying numbers of followers, some as many as 15,500. Again, the theme uncovered by Facebook was the attempt to discredit the protesters as terrorists or stooges working on behalf of a foreign government.
While a few weeks ago the Chinese were singling out the fictional CIA officer Jason Bourne as instrumental in the Hong Kong protests, Twitter’s corpus of information shows us that China has been building the basics of its infrastructure for influence operations for many years, some with creation dates as far back as 2010. The accounts are posting in a variety of languages, but with a unified point of view: to corral sympathy toward the establishment and dissipate the support being provided to the protesters both locally as well as within the foreign-born Chinese communities.
It’s no great surprise that China has in place the ability to project across multiple social networks with multiple “independent voices.” What is now clear is that China has been putting these accounts in place over the years for “aging” purposes—in other words, if an account created in July 2019 was compared to an account created in 2010, the latter may be viewed as more trustworthy by the casual observer attempting to form an opinion.
Unrest in Hong Kong is the Central Committee’s nightmare, as the potential for Hong Kong to be the canary in the proverbial coal mine is very real. As more and more of the PRC major cities’ citizens learn of the protests, the thought of Hong Kong being the ignition for protests to spread like a contagion across the country is very real.