Twitter bans state media ads over 'nefarious' Hong Kong social media tactics

Twitter and Facebook took action against accounts they said are connected to the Chinese government.

Samples of posts from the suspended/removed accounts (Sources: Twitter and Facebook)
Samples of posts from the suspended/removed accounts (Sources: Twitter and Facebook)

In addition to the streets, the ongoing political battle about the future of Hong Kong is being waged in social media channels. And overnight, both Twitter and Facebook announced actions to stem the "inauthentic use" of their platforms for "nefarious tactics". 

Both platforms suspended or deleted accounts – 936 in Twitter's case, five in Facebook's. Twitter also went further by announcing a rule change that bans advertising by state-controlled news media.

Ad ban

Twitter announced the ban on ads from state-owned media sources in a blog post late Monday (US time), citing a desire to "protect healthy discourse and open conversation". 

Specifically, Twitter said, the policy:

  • Will apply to news-media entities that are either financially or editorially controlled by the state.
  • Will be informed by "established academic and civil society leaders in this space", including Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, the European Journalism Centre’s Media Landscapes Report, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and UNESCO.
  • Will be based on "critical issues of media freedom and independence", including editorial control, ownership, influence or interference over journalists, exertion of political pressure, and/or control over the production and distribution process.
  • Will not apply to taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters, nor to entities that are solely dedicated to entertainment, sports, and travel content.
  • Will not prevent affected accounts from using Twitter to engage in public conversation.

Asked whether Facebook would consider a similar change, a company spokesperson said: "We continue to look at our policies as they relate to state-owned media. We’re also taking a closer look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our policies."

Account actions

Twitter suspended 936 accounts originating from mainland China that were "deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong", according to a blog post late Monday (US time). "Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a co-ordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a co-ordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests."

The post contains links to data files showing the accounts that were suspended. "We will continue to be vigilant, learning from this network and proactively enforcing our policies to serve the public conversation," Twitter said. "We hope that by being transparent and open we will empower further learning and public understanding of these nefarious tactics."

For its part, Facebook removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts "involved in co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong", according to a blog post.

The individuals involved used fake accounts to manage pages while posing as news organisations, posted in groups, disseminated content and drove traffic to off-platform news sites, Facebook said. "Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government," the post said.

This year in Hong Kong, 448,000 people will use Twitter, 9.4% of social network users, according to eMarketer, while 98.1% of social network users (4.7 million people) will log into Facebook at least once a month in 2019.

Robert Sawatzky contributed reporting for this article. 

A version of this article was first published by
Campaign Asia-Pacific

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