Social media platforms Facebook and Twitter say they have removed hundreds of fake accounts that posted untrue statements about protesters in Hong Kong.

Some 936 accounts were removed recently for deliberately attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement, Twitter said in a statement.

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests,” Twitter said.

Many of the fake accounts accessed Twitter using VPNs – virtual private networks that bypass the ‘great firewall of China’ – while some of their unblocked IP addresses originated in mainland China, it said.

These accounts were associated with a larger, spam network of approximately 200,000 accounts, which had been proactively suspended before they began service.

“Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” it said. “We will continue to be vigilant, learning from this network and proactively enforcing our policies to serve the public conversation.”

Twitter gave examples of the types of posts emanating from those suspended:

“Are these people who smashed the Legco [Hong Kong’s Legislative Council] crazy or taking benefits from the bad guys?” Dream News (@ctcc507) said in a tweet in early July. “It’s a complete violent behavior, we don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out here!”

Another account (@HKpoliticalnew) criticized the protesters who occupied the Legislative Council building on the evening of July 1 and said the protesters had ulterior motives directed by forces hiding behind the scenes.

The two accounts were removed, the company said, because they violated Twitter’s platform manipulation and spam policy.

Fake accounts: Facebook

Meanwhile, Facebook said in a statement on Monday that it removed seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong.

The individuals behind this campaign engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts — some of which had been already disabled by our automated systems — to manage pages posing as news organizations, post in groups, disseminate their content, and also drive people to off-platform news sites, Facebook said.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” it added.

A pro-Beijing post called Hong Kong protesters “cockroach soldiers.” Photo: Facebook

In one case, a Facebook user said “Protesters. ISIS fighters. What’s the difference?”, while another said “Hong Kong protesters are cockroach soldiers.” One post blamed Hong Kong media for reporting the excessive violence used by the Hong Kong police.

“We will continue monitoring and will take action if we find additional violations. We’ve shared our analysis with law enforcement and industry partners,” Facebook said. “We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.”

Online manipulation 

Over the past decade, the number of pro-Beijing online commentators – nicknamed as the “50 cents” brigade – has grown significantly. Some have suggested they could number up to about 10 million in China, according to a media report.

The nickname comes from what these posters allegedly receive – 0.5 yuan (7 US cents), on top of their basic salary, from Chinese authorities – after posting a pro-government or pro-Chinese Communist Party message.

Pro-Beijing online commentators call Hong Kong protesters ‘rioters’ and ‘terrorists’. Photo: Asia Times

A lot of posts have gone up since over a million protesters rallied against controversial changes proposed to Hong Kong’s extradition bill on June 9, to slander protesters in the city. These accounts usually don’t show real people’s faces or names.

In recent years, Hong Kong netizens have tended not to waste time arguing with the “50 cent brigade” as they know any verbal fight could become endless and meaningless. They would often simply reply: “You got 50 cents.”

Propaganda guidelines

On Tuesday, a one-page document titled: “Propaganda guidelines about the current situation” was being circulated on the Internet. It said mainland media should try every means to describe Hong Kong protests as “criminal acts” and characterize protesters as “terrorists.”

Black paint is seen splashed on China’s national emblem in Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

It said mainland media should put more coverage on foreign flags that appear in protests in order to show that the protests were backed by western powers. Reports about protesters defacing national flags or emblems should be played up while reports showing sympathy to the protests are forbidden.

The document did not show who issued the notice but it was drafted recently, as it mentioned protests at the Hong Kong airport between August 12 and 14.  The format of the document is informal although the instructions mentioned are very close to what media outlets on the mainland have been doing.