Aug 23, 2019 - World
Expert Voices

Social media platforms reveal China's disinformation reaching the West

protestors outside at night linking arms together and holding up glowing cell phones
Pro-democract protesters in Hong Kong. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In the past week, Google, Twitter and Facebook each deactivated networks of accounts found to be waging Beijing-backed global influence campaigns — a sign that China is taking pages out of Russia's propaganda playbook.

Why it matters: These campaigns, which aim to discredit the massive protests underway in Hong Kong, show China not only censoring information domestically but increasingly promoting disinformation abroad.

Driving the news: For the first time, Western social media platforms have attributed information manipulation campaigns to China.

Background: Beijing has long sought to control the flow of information beyond its borders, including by censoring critical content on the Chinese app WeChat and pressuring Western platforms to do the same.

  • Closer to home, Chinese “content farms” have spread disinformation on social media in Taiwan, seeding pro-Beijing narratives.

Between the lines: While most of the Twitter accounts operated in Mandarin, others engaged in Arabic, Japanese, Russian and Spanish — suggesting that Beijing sought to shape perceptions of the protests globally.

  • Based on data released by Twitter , 3 of the 5 most-followed accounts it suspended were promoting material in English.
  • Some of the English-language Twitter accounts has been created and previously controlled by Western businesses and students, an indication that they may have been compromised or sold.
  • As part of this multi-pronged effort, Chinese state media amplified disinformation about the protests with paid advertisements, prompting Twitter to revoke ad purchase privileges from state-run media.

What to watch: At least one account Twitter identified, @LibertyLionNews, focused its messaging on U.S. politics, not the Hong Kong protests. If Twitter is correct in tracing it to China, that signals a greater shift in Chinese tactics, toward promoting divisive narratives within the U.S.

Jessica Brandt is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the head of policy and research for its Alliance for Securing Democracy.

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