A bipartisan group of lawmakers is warning that the Chinese government is harnessing social media platforms to carry out disinformation campaigns about the protests in Hong Kong in an attempt to manipulate public opinion abroad.
Beijing has stepped up an aggressive campaign through its tightly controlled state-run media outlets and social media platforms to put its spin on the escalating demonstrations in Hong Kong while ginning up nationalist sentiment in mainland China.
Those efforts crossed a line for U.S. tech companies Facebook and Twitter. The social media firms announced this week they were shuttering numerous accounts tied to the Chinese government, alleging that the communist state had carried out disinformation campaigns on its platforms.
Experts say this marks the first time China has launched a significant social media-based disinformation campaign geared toward Western audiences, particularly the U.S., and lawmakers warn it could be a taste of what’s in store for the 2020 presidential race.
“I think our digital platforms like Facebook and Google should view this as a trial run for our elections in 2020,” said Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeSunday shows preview: Senate votes to raise debt ceiling; Facebook whistleblower blasts company during testimony Biden, Trump battle over who's to blame for Afghanistan Sunday shows preview: US grapples with rising COVID-19 cases MORE (R-Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Certain foreign governments, including China, are attempting to limit the dissemination of facts while simultaneously spreading their own disinformation — and if they succeed in doing it to the people of Hong Kong, what will stop them from trying to do it to us?”
Lawmakers and experts praised the Silicon Valley giants for taking action, saying their response signals some lessons have been learned since the 2016 presidential election, when Russia’s efforts went undetected for months.
“Twitter and Facebook acted appropriately in quickly discovering a substantial disinformation operation linked to China targeting protestors in Hong Kong, disclosing the activity and accounts to the public and removing those networks from their platforms,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffAll eyes on Garland after Bannon contempt vote House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - Manchin heatedly dismisses rumors of leaving Democratic Party MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement to The Hill. “We know from experience that social media platforms can be powerful engines for spreading false information online with real world consequences.”
But experts are pushing the platforms to go further with their policies, as some question how Chinese-owned media were able to purchase advertisements on top U.S. social media platforms in the first place.
Facebook says it removed seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts that were linked to the Chinese government, some of which were able to successfully build a following on the platform, with one or more pages gaining more than 15,000 followers.
The company is also looking into advertisements on its platform that have been flagged as potential propaganda.
Twitter said it took down 936 accounts, with several surpassing more than 100,000 followers. Some of those accounts paid Twitter to boost their posts in news feeds.
“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,” Twitter said in a statement this week. “Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
Twitter also announced it will no longer allow state-run media to purchase ads on its platform. Other companies, Schiff said, should follow suit.
“While it will be important to gain additional clarity from the company, Twitter’s decision to ban advertising by state-sponsored outlets without independent journalistic standards was also a step in the right direction,” Schiff said in a statement. “This approach could be mirrored by other social media companies, if it is effective.”
A Facebook spokesperson told The Hill it is looking into its policies around state media, but has not yet made any decisions.
Some experts say there is evidence that China’s disinformation campaign was premeditated, with some of the fake accounts remaining online for more than a year.
“This was not something thrown together in the middle of the Hong Kong protests,” said Peter Singer, a fellow studying war and technology at New America, a Washington-based think tank.
Since Russia launched its game-changing disinformation campaign in the U.S. several years ago, other countries have sought to mirror its tactics.
Last year, Facebook announced it had shut down hundreds of pages tied to foreign governments, with many of the pages linked to Iran’s government. Google and Twitter removed Iranian-linked accounts as well.
So far, China’s attempts to spread disinformation and sow discord have been less sophisticated and obscure.
“While not necessarily as adept at social media exploitation as Russia, the Chinese government has built an entire infrastructure to support its efforts at information control, through a combination of censorship and disinformation,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Biden seeks to quell concerns over climate proposals Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Intelligence report warns of climate threats in all countries MORE (D-Va.) said in a statement to The Hill. “And it’s exporting both the technology and ideas information control to authoritarian regimes around the world.”
Beijing has painted the Hong Kong demonstrators as paid activists who later turned violent in their attacks against the Chinese police.
In one instance documented by The New York Times, China Central Television, a state television broadcaster, claimed one protester was hit in the eye by a projectile issued “by her companion,” rather than a beanbag round fired off by Chinese police.
The same report cited state media alleging the woman also paid money to demonstrators, in what appeared to be an attempt to discredit the motivations of protesters who are calling for independent elections free from Chinese influence.
This outward-facing disinformation campaign is coupled with the state’s heavy-handed control of content, with its so-called Great Firewall that filters what information is accessible to readers in mainland China.
“The Chinese are moving the techniques they use to control their domestic population to target foreign audiences,” Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity and technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill.
Paul Barrett, a disinformation researcher who serves as the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern School of Business, said that if China were to launch a U.S.-focused campaign during next year’s presidential campaign, it would likely favor Democrats, considering the country’s strained relationship with President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE.
“The Russians wanted to get Donald Trump elected,” Barrett said. “I assume the Chinese would ... go against Trump because they’re not very fond of him.”
And there would likely be few consequences for such a campaign, experts say.
“The bottom line is that Russia saw great success and little to no cost of these operations. And the lesson that every other actor took from it was not just, 'Hey, this works’ but ‘it's no cost to me,’ ” Singer said.
Twitter and Facebook came under fire for their failure to act quickly in 2016, with some pages operating for months. This time around, their advertising policies are coming under renewed scrutiny.
“If you’re China, if you’re Russia, if you’re North Korea, should you be allowed to use these platforms to advertise?” Lewis asked. “Most people would say no.”
Critics are questioning whether social media companies will be able to separate their business interests from their abuse policies.
“I don’t think any of these companies wants to rule out someday doing business on a large scale in China,” Barrett said.
Propaganda videos have been identified on Google’s video platform YouTube.
The search engine giant has not responded to requests for comment on the Hong Kong disinformation campaigns.
Experts say that while the Facebook and Twitter acted appropriately in this instance, there are still steps the public and private sector should take to thwart such campaigns in the future.
“There's only so much companies can do on their own. It points to a further need for government on this,” Singer said.
He noted that the Trump administration released the first update to U.S. cybersecurity strategy in over 15 years, but it did not address the challenge of online disinformation campaigns and other influence operations.
That doesn’t mean the government isn’t working to address the matter, Singer argued, but it does create a “gap” since there is no overall strategy.
“It is one of these things that they are to be applauded for, but it also shows how much further we have to go,” he said.