In the wake of Hong Kong protests, China has been using Twitter and Facebook for its disinformation campaigns.
The Chinese government has reportedly launched what is appeared to be a coordinated disinformation campaign, which is intended to sow political discord in Hong Kong. Both Facebook and Twitter have taken action to remove the accounts responsible for these campaigns, but the extensiveness of the campaigns are telling.
Pinboard noticed that promotional tweets were being run that appeared to be from the Chinese government, encouraging Hong Kong residents to stop protesting, and stating that Hong Kong residents themselves wanted the social order reinstated. Twitter later reacted by pulling promotional tweets by the Chinese government, but Beijing still had many accounts through which it could sow political dissent. These Chinese-controlled accounts appeared to be a coordinated attack aimed at getting Hong Kong residents to give up their protests and to accept Chinese control.
It’s always been known that China (and, of course, Russia) had some exertion over social media. Social media provides an excellent way to control a narrative. Through the right, well-placed accounts, virtually any news can be spun in a way that is beneficial. But until now, the social disinformation campaigns have not been so widespread and so obvious. China already blocks both Facebook and Twitter through its firewall, so it hasn’t previously needed to initiate a large scale disinformation attack.
It’s difficult for Facebook and Twitter to counter these campaigns, because on the surface, these campaigns can appear to be individuals speaking about current events. How these campaigns differ is that they are “bot” accounts, and do not belong to real people. The campaign against Hong Kong had many of these accounts comparing Hong Kong protestors to terrorists, or otherwise trying to undermine their message.
But, of course, these are things that a real person could do as well, if they were not inclined to agree with the Hong Kong protestors. Consequently, it’s difficult for either Facebook or Twitter to develop an automated process that can block this type of disinformation campaign. Most of these campaigns are built around the premise of sounding reasonable: they mimic other, real accounts, to make it appear as though some political discourse is occurring, and specific conclusions are being reached.
This isn’t the first time this week that Twitter has come under fire for allowing “bot” accounts. Earlier this week, Amazon was at the heart of a similar controversy. Amazon’s “FC Ambassadors” run a social media brand ambassador program, under which they respond to critiques of Amazon with carefully scripted messages. In fact, these messages were so scripted that people automatically accused them of being bots.
This is notable, because (though with significantly more mild intentions), this is not unlike what China is doing in Hong Kong. Amazon has attempted to control the narrative of its business by hiring accounts to post positive things on social media, and while this isn’t necessarily against the terms of service (in this case, they are real people), it has the same end result. At the end of it, the “reality” of the situation has been altered to follow the narrative presented by Amazon.
The ability to manipulate what people see on social media cannot be understated, especially as social media is now instrumental to the political process. Both China and Russia may now have the resources needed to swing the tide of an election, simply by distributing information in ways that alter public opinion. By controlling the internet, these countries are also able to control what information the voting public has. They can suppress information about candidates they dislike, and they can disseminate information about the candidates they support.
China, Russia, or even Amazon: with enough money and enough accounts, people can readily control what people see on social media. This is a growing problem, and one that is likely going to need to be addressed in the future. As it stands, Twitter and Facebook are both attempting to improve upon their response and their detection, and the general public is becoming more savvy to these types of threats.