China Used Twitter Porn Accounts to Spread Hong Kong Propaganda: Report

A new report has claimed that the Chinese government used a wide range of Twitter accounts to sow disinformation about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and discredit its critics further afield—and that it had been doing so for at least two years.

In a report released on Tuesday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute detailed state-backed efforts by Chinese-run Twitter accounts to target Hong Kong residents and the overseas diaspora—largely using Chinese-language posts—with misinformation maligning anti-government protesters.

Last month, Twitter said it had removed almost 200,000 Chinese accounts that were seeking to undermine the protest movement in Hong Kong. Facebook subsequently dismantled a smaller network of fake pages, acting on information received from Twitter.

The ASPI said some of those deleted had been active for several years, and had been used to target a range of Communist Party critics—including an exiled billionaire, a human rights lawyer and a bookseller.

Before they were co-opted by the Chinese government, the accounts had been tweeting a variety of content. Some focused on sports, others concerned themselves with K-pop music, while some of the most popular shared porn. In fact, at least two of the four most retweeted accounts were primarily used to share pornographic material.

ASPI researchers analyzed the activity of almost 1,000 Twitter accounts disclosed by the social media giant. It found that the accounts—which operated mostly during the Chinese working week with breaks at weekends and public holidays—began tweeting about Hong Kong in April, soon after dissent emerged over a controversial extradition bill proposed in March.

The legislation would have allowed the semi-autonomous territory to extradite fugitives to China for trial, which opponents feared would enable Beijing to persecute political dissidents.

The accounts peddled official government talking points, dismissing the protesters as rioters, voicing support for Hong Kong police and accusing foreign nations of funding and directing the demonstrations.

The number of Hong Kong tweets spiked in June when millions took to the streets to protest the extradition bill. The unrest has since morphed into a wider anti-Beijing movement, with protester demands now including universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and amnesty for all those arrested for participating in the unrest.

As violence erupted, the accounts shared images of protesters vandalizing government property and arming themselves with weapons, Bloomberg noted. The pictures were accompanied by text which read, for example, "We don't want you radical people here in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!"

ASPI said the pattern of activity suggested the pro-government Twitter campaign was reactionary rather than planned far in advance, outsourced to individual accounts and directed by people who were surprised by the rapid growth of the demonstrations and the tenacity of activists.

ASPI researchers were unimpressed with the campaign, describing it as "relatively small hastily constructed, and relatively unsophisticated." The "blunt force influence operation" used re-purposed spam and marketing accounts to spread its message, many of which could be bought for a few dollars each.

"The situation in Hong Kong was evolving too rapidly," the report explained. "So it appears that the actors behind this campaign effectively took a short-cut by buying established accounts with many followers."

The approach "suggests a crude understanding of information operations and rudimentary trade craft that is a long way from the skill level demonstrated by other state actors," the report posited.

ASPI suggested this could be due to the fact that the campaign was outsourced to users by the government rather than controlled directly. It may also reflect the fact that Chinese officials are less adept at manipulating open platforms like Twitter when compared with heavily censored Chinese platforms like WeChat of Weibo.

China, porn, Hong Kong, Twitter
Students take part in a school boycott rally in Central district on September 2, 2019 in Hong Kong, on September 02, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Chris McGrath/Getty Images/Getty
China Used Twitter Porn Accounts to Spread Hong Kong Propaganda: Report | News