Facebook, Twitter remove accounts they say Chinese government was using to undermine in Hong Kong protests

The social media sites said the accounts were meant to undermine the protests.

August 19, 2019, 9:21 PM

Twitter announced on Monday that it had suspended about 200,000 accounts that it said were part of a Chinese government-backed attempt to undermine "the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement" in Hong Kong.

The social media giant made the announcement on the same day that Facebook announced it had removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts that it said originated from China and were "involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior."

Pro-democracy protesters gather to participate in a rally organized by higher education students in Chater Garden in Hong Kong, Aug. 16, 2019.
Kin Cheung/AP

"What we've heard is both platforms saying variations on the theme that they have found people who are linked to the Chinese government, who've got caught running troll campaigns against the Hong Kong protesters, posting content saying that the protesters are cockroaches, that they're evil people, that they are the darkness standing in the way of the light of the people's revolution," Ben Nimmo, a digital investigator with the social media analysis firm Graphika, told ABC News' "Start Here" podcast.

Nearly 1,000 of the accounts that Twitter suspended were actively attempting to "sow political discord in Hong Kong," the press release said. The company said that some of the accounts accessed Twitter from mainland China, where Twitter is blocked, but that many of them gained access instead through virtual private networks, which can hide the location from which you’re browsing

An example of the kinds of content that Twitter says were deliberately attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the protest movement.

"One of the interesting things with the Twitter announcement ... is they say that a lot of these accounts were being run through ... proxy internet accounts in different countries," Nimmo said.

Facebook, meanwhile, said that the individuals behind the influence campaign it identified sometimes created fake accounts to manage pages that posed as news organizations, posted in groups, shared content or directed people to off-platform news websites.

"They frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong," a Facebook press release said. "Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government."

This story was featured in the Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast, "Start Here."

Now in their 11th week of protests, the announcements follow a week in which mainland China has begun to consider ratcheting up efforts to shut down the protests in the semi-autonomous territory as the protests have become more violent.

Amid a city-wide strike, thousands of protesters last week stormed Hong Kong International Airport, forcing officials to cancel flights for two days in a row as protesters paralyzed its operations. The protests marked an escalation between the Chinese government and Hong Kong protesters, who at one point barricaded themselves in the airport with luggage carts before clashing with riot police.

Demonstrators form a barricade as they clash with riot police at Hong Kong International Airport, Aug. 13, 2019.
Rick Findler/REX via Shutterstock

On Sunday, protesters rallied in Victoria Park in Hong Kong for what demonstrators say was the largest protest yet, with 1.7 million people in attendance. It was mostly peaceful, save for a few blocked streets from overcrowding in the park.

The protests began in June when hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators marched in opposition to an extradition bill that government leaders in the territory had reached with the Chinese government. The bill was suspended as the protests grew louder.

ABC News' Brad Mielke, David Rind and Kelly Terez contributed to this report.

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