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Twitter, Facebook counter ‘information operation’ targeting HK protesters

Twitter, Facebook counter ‘information operation’ targeting HK protesters

Social network operators ban accounts linked to state-backed campaign against protest movement

One of the images shared on Facebook as part of the campaign.

One of the images shared on Facebook as part of the campaign.

Credit: Facebook

Twitter has suspended 936 user accounts that the social network operator says were part of a state-backed “information operation” targeting the Hong Kong protest movement.

The accounts originated from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Twitter claimed, and were “attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground”.

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” a Twitter blog post said. “Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests.”

In many cases the accounts employed VPNs to access Twitter because the service is blocked in China, although some used specific unblocked IP addresses.

“The accounts we are sharing today represent the most active portions of this campaign; a larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts — many created following our initial suspensions — were proactively suspended before they were substantially active on the service,” Twitter said.

The accounts were suspended for a range of reasons including spam, coordinated activity, being fake accounts, attributed activity and ban evasion.

Twitter released downloadable archives of the 936 accounts’ activity on its service.

Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said that the social network had removed seven pages, three groups and five user accounts that had been “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong”.

About 15,500 accounts followed one or more of the pages and some 2200 joined one of the groups.

“The individuals behind this campaign engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts — some of which had been already disabled by our automated systems — to manage Pages posing as news organizations, post in Groups, disseminate their content, and also drive people to off-platform news sites,” Gleicher wrote.

The Facebook executive said the company’s investigation was sparked by a tip from Twitter.

Twitter bans ads from ‘state-controlled news media entities’

Twitter has also announced it will “not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities”.

“We want to protect healthy discourse and open conversation,” Twitter said. “To that end, we believe that there is a difference between engaging in conversation with accounts you choose to follow and the content you see from advertisers in your Twitter experience which may be from accounts you're not currently following. We have policies for both but we have higher standards for our advertisers.”

Twitter said that affected accounts “will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, just not our advertising products”.

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