Twitter, Facebook hit out at Beijing for misinformation

Social media giants accuse Beijing of misinformation aimed to sow political discord in HK

Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.

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Twitter and Facebook have both accused Beijing of orchestrating large scale misinformation campaign against HK protesters. Twitter said that it was aimed to “sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground”.

This is a significant development because this is the first time that large international social media platforms have come out against Beijing’s efforts to manipulate the information environment. The language is so clear that it leaves no doubt as to what Beijing has been accused of.

For those of us that have been watching this space, there was a long-held suspicion that Beijing was engaging in such activities. For context, China’s state media has been expanding its international presence in resent years; China’s information operations capabilities have become more sophisticated, no doubt learning from the Russians ; and “narrative struggle” has become acquired a high priority. Xi’s China want to win the heart and minds of the world, and it has been trying to do that via both overt and covert means.

In recent days, China’s information campaign has been especially pronounced as the drama unfolds HK. The party-state has redoubled efforts to demonise the protesters and amplify its version of the story. State media has carried blatant lies about the HK protests, including by characterising the protesters as radicals and criminals, and by blaming the unrest in HK on foreign forces trying to undermine China.

The latest revelation harms China’s international reputation as a trustworthy and responsible actor on the world stage. It also highlights a willingness to manipulate truth in the serve of a political agenda, one with repressive elements. If China want to earn the esteem of the world, then it needs credibility and this certainly does not help.

Facebook and Twitter deserve merit for coming out in such a transparent way. This may be an example of how to deal with state-led misinformation campaigns in the future. The best disinfectant is transparency; the best deterrent is the willingness to expose and condemn such efforts.

While China’s propaganda and misinformation campaigns have been quite successful within China, largely because of the state’s monopoly of the information environment, outside of China, especially in contested information environments, these efforts have largely been ineffective.

This latest development is a warning that states-led manipulative and covert efforts are attempting to shape our perspectives. It is also a warning to China that unsophisticated information operations will increasingly not be enough. This will prompt Beijing to rethink how it conducts such campaigns, and may well lead to more sophisticated and subtle efforts in the future.