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Facebook and Twitter said Monday that they had deleted a network of fake accounts used by China to sow political discord over Hong Kong’s pro-democracy, anti-police brutality protests.
The accounts also were used to share pro-Beijing rhetoric in response to the Hong Kong-initiated boycott of The Walt Disney Co.’s upcoming film Mulan, some of the tweet examples shared by Twitter reveal.
The Mulan boycott was initiated late last week after the film’s star, Crystal Liu Yifei, posted a message of support on Chinese social media for the Hong Kong police force. The post ignited a firestorm both within Hong Kong and among pro-democracy sympathizers overseas, given the many accusations by international human rights groups that the police have been using excess force in their confrontations with protesters and the public.
Twitter said Monday that it pulled down 936 troll accounts, many of which pushed conspiracy theories about the Hong Kong protesters and their motivations.
“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” the company said in a statement. Twitter added that it has “reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
Many of the deleted accounts claimed to be users based in the United States, in places ranging from New York City and to small towns like Berrien Springs, Mich. Some of the accounts were set up years ago, and slowly amassed followers by tweeting about innocuous pop culture, such as NBC’s hit show This Is Us — a common tactic used to cloak misinformation campaigns in credibility.
Other accounts, such as @HKPoliticalNew, were attempting to pose as legitimate Hong Kong news outlets.
Facebook responded to Twitter’s move by pulling down 16 pages it said were linked to the same troll operation.
One post highlighted by Twitter’s public safety team read: “We don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”
A recent China-linked Facebook post compared the pro-democracy protestors to ISIS fighters.
Another Twitter post said: “Are these people who smashed the Legco crazy or taking benefits from the bad guys?” (Legco is Hong Kong’s legislature, which was briefly occupied by protestors earlier this month.)
Central to Beijing’s vast propaganda campaign within Mainland China is the allegation that the protests have been instigated by Western forces allied against China, including the CIA, rather than Hong Kong residents advocating for their own political concerns. China has offered no credible evidence for the claim.
Shortly after the #BoycottMulan hashtag start trending on Twitter last Friday, users tweeting about the campaign began calling attention to accounts they suspected were being directed by the Chinese government.
“You should come to Hong Kong to see the truth, not be misled by unscrupulous Western media and politicians,” read one reply to #BoycottMulan from the account @shu_zhiyuan, which has since been removed by Twitter.
The Hong Kong protests began nearly three months ago in response to a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents charged a crime to be extradited to mainland China. Nearly 2 million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to contest the bill at the height of the protests in June, believing it would mark the end of the autonomy and rule of law Hong Kong was promised when the territory was handed back to China from Britain in 1997.
After the Hong Kong police responded with heavy-handed tactics — including firing tear gas into public subway stations and using rubber bullets against crowds — the protests have intensified and the movement’s demands have morphed into calls for independent investigations of the police and direct democracy. An estimated 1.7 million Hong Kong residents braved pouring rain in Hong Kong on Sunday to join a peaceful procession through the heart of the city — demonstrating that the movement is not fading away as the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities may have hoped.
Liu pulled Disney into the fray last week when she shared an image with her 65 million followers on China’s Twitter-like social media service, Weibo, reading: “I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now,” followed by, “What a shame for Hong Kong.” The image had originally been created by the state-backed People’s Daily. Liu added the hashtag “IAlsoSupportTheHongKongPolice” and a heart emoji.
The post was widely praised in China — both by Beijing’s vast social media propaganda apparatus and lay patriotic users — but outside the Middle Kingdom it has raised awkward questions about Disney’s brand allegiances.
Both Facebook and Twitter, as well as the websites of the BBC, The New York Times and Bloomberg, are banned in China, blocked by the so-called Great Firewall, a complex system of Internet censorship mechanisms.
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