Earlier this month, Chinese state media launched a domestic blitz depicting the Hong Kong protests as riots funded by the CIA. China-linked social media accounts then flooded Twitter and Facebook with thousands of pro-Beijing posts and targeted advertisements.
Social media companies are now pushing back.
Twitter said this week it had suspended nearly 1,000 accounts it believes are tied to Chinese state actors and that it would no longer accept advertising from state-funded media. Facebook announced shortly after that it was removing seven pages, five Facebook accounts and three groups after Twitter tipped the platform off to the use of "a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts."
According to data released by Twitter, almost all of the suspended accounts were disguised as personal or corporate accounts of marketing firms, international relations experts or bitcoin enthusiasts. Others posed as Hong Kong media outlets and wrote in traditional Chinese characters, the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Some suspended accounts even appeared to masquerade as the work of Chinese dissidents. One such account, @valentinovchar4, posted "born in 1970, experienced June Fourth, now living in China," a reference to the bloody crackdown against protesters in China's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Another suspended user, @qujianming1, registered in the Bronx and wrote this bio: "a vagabond punished for free speech. I believe that one day the light will come."
Documents show that Chinese government agencies have been paying to acquire more social media followers. A tender posted Aug. 16 by Chinese state-run outlet China News offers RMB1,250,000 ($177,000) to acquire more Twitter followers. Another government tender posted Monday RMB750,000 ($108,300) to acquire more Facebook and Twitter followers to support the China ASEAN exposition being held in September.
"Chinese media like [state broadcaster] CGTN or China Daily cannot independently recreate the China narrative on social media," King-wa Fu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center, told NPR. "That's why they need to make use of these means to create social media traffic and to try to create a way to counter the pro-Hong Kong narrative on the social media."
On Tuesday, thousands of anti-Hong Kong posts were still being generated by what appeared to be Twitter bots – accounts created in July or August with only a handful of followers — and feeds dominated by similarly formatted slogans and propaganda videos. Many of them sport the hashtag #supportmulan, a reference to the Disney live-action remake of Mulan that Hong Kong protesters say they will boycott after its lead actor announced she supported Hong Kong police.
China's powerful propaganda channels have readily adapted to the profusion of digital platforms used by its citizens. It routinely censors Chinese social media and chat apps to scrub dissenting opinions or references to sensitive political subjects. A 2016 Harvard study estimated that around half a billion Chinese social media posts a year are created by government-paid commentators.
Over the past decade, China has also globalized its propaganda efforts. China Daily, an English-language state-run broadsheet, regularly runs full-page inserts in mainstream American newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Major Communist Party-run outlets now sponsor pro-Beijing content in hundreds of outlets catering to overseas Chinese and hold fully funded annual summits for Chinese-language journalists based outside of China.
Twitter and Facebook's identification of at least 1,000 Chinese state-linked accounts this week show how these disinformation efforts have expanded to international social media platforms. Influencing perceptions of audiences both inside and outside of China is now a government priority. A critical component of these perception management campaigns is the estimated 60 million ethnic Chinese people who live outside of China and whom Beijing views as pliable audiences.
"It's no secret that the PRC government routinely coordinates fake social media activity on Chinese social media platforms, but this would be confirmation that it's now doing the same thing in English and other languages, with the likely goal of eroding other countries' support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong," says Matt Schrader, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who studies Chinese influence operations.
Taiwan already has felt the brunt of Chinese disinformation campaigns. Its government has proposed several new regulations that would limit mainland-backed social media platforms from operating in Taiwan. It also investigated pro-Beijing outlets in response to evidence that China sponsored extensive disinformation campaigns on Facebook, WhatsApp and the social media app Line in an attempt to sway public opinion before the 2016 Taiwanese elections.
Facebook and Twitter have come under fire from U.S. regulators who say the social media platforms were used by Russian disinformation campaigns to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. American lawmakers have previously warned that Chinese state actors have begun to emulate Russian influence operations.
Chinese disinformation efforts use a combination of targeted, paid advertisement and bot accounts to promote Chinese state media content and disseminate a more benign image of Beijing's policies, according to a March report from Recorded Future, a Boston-based cybersecurity firm.
Amy Cheng contributed reporting from Beijing.