Twitter says a significant information operation involving hundreds of accounts linked to China were part of an effort to deliberately “sow political discord” in Hong Kong after weeks of protests in the region.
In a blog post, the social networking site said the 936 accounts it found tried to undermine “the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”
More than a million protesters took to the streets this weekend to demonstrate peacefully against the Chinese government, which took over rule from the British government in 1997. Protests erupted months ago following a bid by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to push through a highly controversial bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill was suspended, effectively killing it from reaching the law books, but protests have continued, pushing back at claims that China is trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Although Twitter is banned in China, the social media giant says the latest onslaught of fake accounts is likely “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,” the statement said.
Twitter said many of the accounts are using virtual private networks — or VPNs — which can be used to tunnel through China’s vast domestic censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. The company added that the accounts it is sharing represent the “most active” portions of a wider spam campaign of about 200,000 accounts.
“Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” said Twitter.
News of the fake accounts comes days after Twitter user @Pinboard warned that China was using Twitter to send and promote tweets aimed at discrediting the protest movement.
Facebook said in its own post it also took down five Facebook accounts, seven pages and three groups on its site “based on a tip shared by Twitter.” The accounts frequently posted about local political news and issues, including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” said Gleicher.
Some of the posts, Facebook said, referred to Hong Kong residents as “cockroaches.”
Twitter said it’s adding the complete set of the accounts’ tweets to its archive of information operations.