Three U.S. social media giants – Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube – have taken action to remove hundreds of accounts with alleged ties to the Chinese government's manipulation of opinion about the months-long anti-government movement in Hong Kong.
But analysts said more needs to be done, as China’s global media drive to control information beyond its borders has become so “irrevocable” that it poses a threat to democratic development and press freedom throughout the world.
YouTube said last week that it has suspended 210 channels, which “behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.” Those channels were suspected to be part of a Beijing-backed campaign to influence opinion about the city’s political unrest.
The move followed similar measures announced by Twitter and Facebook earlier last week to stop the distribution of disinformation content, for example, likening the anti-government protests in Hong Kong to the terrorist group Islamic State.
Such comparison is not only misleading, but also a distortion from the political reality, said Hong Kong political commentator Sang Pu.
“They also want to create a kind of hate speech among the [Hong Kong] people. So this means, this information of hate speech, fake news, they are [spread] all around the world,” Sang said.
Twitter said it had disabled 936 accounts originating from within China, and Facebook followed suit, removing seven pages, three groups and five accounts involved in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
“We welcome the decision of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to close accounts with ties to the Beijing regime, which are suspected to have distributed disinformation content regarding Hong Kong,” said Cedric Alviani, the director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) East Asia bureau in Taipei.
RSF urged the public to pay special attention to the source of the news they receive and to report content that purposefully presents a distorted image of reality.
The group’s report in March titled ‘China's Pursuit of a New World Media Order’ said that disinformation and propaganda are two of Beijing’s favorite weapons against critical voices.
Protesting the blocking of accounts by Twitter and Facebook, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said “Chinese living abroad should have the right to express their opinion and the stance of 1.4 billion Chinese on Hong Kong affairs.”
While lauding their efforts, Sang Pu urged the three western platforms to continue their scrutiny as they may have underestimated the number of accounts China uses to amplify its messages worldwide.
Blocked in China, most western social media including Twitter can only be accessed using virtual private networks (VPNs).
But Twitter said some accounts accessed its platform from unblocked IP addresses originating in China.
Evidently, Chinese authorities were behind it, said Zhou Shuguang, a prominent citizen journalist and blogger from China who currently lives in Taiwan.
“Some private companies and groups hired by the [Chinese] government have, in an organized manner, registered lots of virtual accounts or created Twitter bots to spread fake news on Twitter,” Zhou said.
“[China’s] 50 cent army and Twitter bots, along with its self-employed 50 cent army, work together. That’s how China achieves its propaganda goals,” he added.
50 Cent Army
The 50 cent army is a colloquial term for Chinese internet commentators whom the authorities hire to help amplify their messages online at a rate of 50 cents per post.
Zhou said that most western social media platforms are able and entitled to delete China-sponsored manipulative accounts, but it’s tricky to manage real accounts owned by the so-called self-employed 50 cent army.
They are often heavily influenced by China’s state-controlled news outlets and social media – the likes of Weibo and WeChat, which Sang said pose another serious threat to the world’s press freedom since they are not blocked outside of China.
Global Media Campaign
“They’ve all been brainwashed by this fake news. And not just the mainland Chinese, and also for foreigners who watch those things and they may be brainwashed bit by bit by all this fake news and disinformation, hate speech and discussion. So, we need to be very careful about all these things,” the commentator said.
Sang expressed worries that the global media campaign, which China initiated a decade ago at an initial budget of $6.3 billion, has been “ongoing, more precise, in-depth and also irrevocable.”
The campaign aims to enhance China’s global influence and image through the overseas expansion of state media and paid ads or editorials in overseas news outlets including social media platforms.
To combat China’s manipulation, Sang said that it’s important that the public check facts about news they hear and that other social media platforms follow suit to remove questionable accounts.
Judicial action is further needed to root out any hidden forces that aim to spread fake news and disinformation online, he added.