China’s alleged state-sponsored disinformation operations are not a recent phenomenon that only arose from the rapid growth of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests – they have reportedly been part of Beijing’s modus operandi in controlling the narrative against its political dissidents.
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) revealed that there is “evidence” to suggest that fake accounts, which were allegedly traced back to the Chinese government, “had previously engaged in multiple information operations targeting political opponents of the Chinese government”.
“Activity in these campaigns show clear signs of coordinated inauthentic behaviour, for example patterns of posting which correspond to working days and hours in Beijing. These information operations were likely aimed at overseas Chinese audiences,” according to the report.
ASPI also noted that such operations “date back years and have been used in a series of state-sponsored disinformation operations targeting Beijing’s political opponents, including an exiled billionaire, a human rights lawyer and a bookseller targeted by officials for distributing tales of China’s political elite”.
Fake accounts used in relation to the Hong Kong protests, said ASPI, made posts that were “predominantly’ in Chinese, and “suggest that state actors were targeting an audience of Hong Kongers and overseas diaspora, feeding them the state line on how to think about events that might be covered differently by international media”.
“Tweets occurred primarily during the country’s workweek and during local business hours, with breaks for weekends and holidays like Chinese New Year,” the report added.
However, ASPI concluded that “the information operation targeting the Hong Kong protests” appears to be
relatively small hastily constructed, and relatively unsophisticated”.
“This suggests that the operation, which Twitter has identified as linked to state-backed actors, is likely to have been a rapid response to the unanticipated size and power of the Hong Kong protests rather than a campaign planned well in advance.
“This may be because the campaigns were outsourced to a contractor, or may reflect a lack of familiarity on the part of Chinese state-backed actors when it comes to information operations on open social media platforms such as Twitter, as opposed to the highly proficient levels of control demonstrated by the Chinese government over heavily censored platforms such as WeChat or Weibo,” the report read.
The New York Times (NYT) asserted last month that “China has long curated the content that it allows its citizens to see and read” via its “Great Firewall”.
Under the CCP, many foreign websites such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, NYT observed.
“Censors embedded within its internet companies delete anything unacceptable. The police have arrested people who speak out of turn in chat groups, or who share sensitive content online,” added NYT.
The coordinated campaign against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, according to NYT, has “echoes of tactics used by other countries, principally Russia, to inundate domestic and international audiences with bursts of information, propaganda and, in some cases, outright disinformation”.
Author of This is Not Propaganda Peter Pomerantsev told NYT that “Propagandists observe each other across borders, and they learn from each other”.
While sheer propaganda works with the aim of influencing an audience to adopt certain desired ideologies, Pomerantsev said that disinformation works by creating confusion and fuelling conspiracies among its targeted audience.
“You have to smother everything with doubt, and conspiracy is very effective in creating that,” said Pomerantsev.
Twitter, Facebook reveal China govt’s alleged involvement in HK discord campaign
Just last week, AFP reported that social media giants Twitter and Facebook have publicly asserted that the Chinese government had a hand in disinformation campaigns against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change,” Twitter said.
Almost 1,000 active accounts linked to the campaign were suspended by the sites, while 200,000 more were suspended by Twitter.
“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,” said Twitter.
Facebook said some of the posts made by the banned accounts drew parallels between the protesters in Hong Kong and ISIS militants, calling them “cockroaches” and accused the protestors of planning to kill people using slingshots.
This appears to be linked to the China Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s view of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors, which has labelled the protesters who were considered violent as “terrorists”.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Facebook added.