Fake News Generated Against Hong Kong Protesters

Research by the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the Hong Kong University has begun to reveal the disinformation spread on social media the 2019 Hong Kong protests by China where these events are being framed as a separatist movement.

A University of Hong Kong (HKU) team scrutinising images, videos and any information from the ongoing anti-government protests, trying to tell which are real, misleading or fake.

Since August 2019, China’s information operations on Hong Kong protests have been unveiled internationally. This was brought to the light after a number of social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, discovered the existence of coordinated network activities by China that were spreading disinformation about Honk Kong protests. Twitter has said that the aim of these operations was to undermine the protest movement’s “legitimacy and political positions.”

As Twitter and Facebook’s reports had not addressed the nature of disinformation in the operation, a research team headed by Professor Fu King-wa of the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the Hong Kong University conducted follow-up research and ran data analysis on content from 640,000 Twitter user accounts which actively posted Hong Kong-related news since June 2019. The research is still ongoing.

The initial analysis shows that about 20 percent of the 640,000 Twitter users were bots and this percentage is much higher than previous research about information operations in other countries. 

For example, the percentage of bots in Russian information operations regarding Ukraine was just about 8 percent according to a research on Russian social media influence published by RAND corporation in 2018. Inside China’s Great Firewall, disinformation spread on social media was mainly aimed at constructing a separatist or “pro-Hong Kong independence” frame for Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement. Everything related to Hong Kong protests on China’s Weibo was labeled as acts of “pro-Hong Kong independence” by social media news outlets. 

Even the pro-Hong Kong protests comments that are made outside the Great Firewall on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, once they are spotted by mainland Chinese netizens and reported on Chinese social media platforms.

These individual users could face tremendous pressure, in particular if they have social and business connections with China. Furthermore to ocurrence  violent acts by pro-Beijing elements had been praised on mainland Chinese social media as heroic acts. For example, the Lennon Walls, a public art space which has been set up spontaneously by local residents in many districts for free expression, are labelled “pro-Hong Kong independence” sites and those who have taken action to destroy the walls are depicted as the righteous ones. 

However, “Hong Kong independence” is not even an agenda of the Hong Kong protesters, who have been taking to the streets since March 2019. 

The five demands of the protests are complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, which would authorise Hong Kong to extradite crime suspects to mainland China for trial, independent investigation into police operations, the dropping of all riot charges against the protesters, amnesty for arrested protesters, and universal suffrage to the Legislature and the Chief Executive. 
None of these demands include calls for Hong Kong independence.

The research team will continue to dig further into the data for a more elaborate analysis of China’s information operations in relation to the Hong Kong protests. However, initial findings strongly suggest that the Chinese Communist party and state media apparatus have played a key role in spreading information framing the protests as a “pro-Hong Kong independence” movement. 

Such attempts are intended to mislead China’s public opinion that the discontent is part of a separatist political plot to undermine the “integrity of Chinese territory”, a phrase repeatedly used among mainland Chinese online patriots.

Global Voices:           SCMP

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