Skip to Content

China, Which Bans Twitter and Facebook, Is Running a Covert, Anti-Hong Kong Protest Campaign, the Social Networks Say

Twitter is blocked in China, but that hasn't stopped the country's leaders from using it to launch a coordinated campaign with at least 936 accounts and a vast spam network designed to "sow political discord" during the protests in Hong Kong, according to information released by Twitter on Monday.

An investigation found at least 936 Twitter accounts were tied to "a significant state-backed information operation" originating in China. Those accounts aimed to undermine the "legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement" in Hong Kong. A larger spam network of 200,000 accounts also helped to amplify those messages through retweets, according to Twitter's disclosure.

"These covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service—they violate the fundamental principles on which Twitter was built," Twitter's safety team said in a statement on Monday. "We hope that we can empower further learning and public understanding of these nefarious behaviors that undermine the public conversation."

Acting on a tip shared by Twitter, Facebook also announced on Monday that it had removed five accounts, seven pages and three groups "as part of a small network that originated in China and focused in Hong Kong." Facebook estimates that 15,500 accounts followed at least one or more of the removed pages, while 2,200 accounts were members of the now-removed groups.

The irony is, of course, that Twitter and Facebook—along with other popular Western social networks—are banned by the China's censors. Many of the Twitter accounts traced to the state-run coordinated information campaign accessed the service using virtual private networks, which re-routed their traffic to make it seem as though it was coming from another country. But some used unblocked IP addresses, which helped Twitter to zero in on the campaign.

In addition to the coordinated activity, Twitter has been facing calls to remove paid advertisements being run by China's state Xinhua news agency that are critical of the Hong Kong protests. On Monday, Twitter announced it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media.

A Twitter spokesperson tells Fortune that at least one advertisement has already been removed for violating their policies. The ad portrays the pro-democracy protests as chaotic and violent, despite the fact that international reporters on the ground have described them as most peaceful events.

"Two months on, the escalating violence in Hong Kong has taken a heavy toll on the social order. All walks of like in Hong Kong called for a brake to be put on the blatant violence and for order to be restored," reads the promoted tweet, which has since been removed. The tweet was flagged by social bookmarking account Pinboard.

It's unclear how long the advertisement was shown on Twitter before it was removed, along with how many people may have seen it. Furthermore, Twitter does not disclose advertising budgets or who advertisers are specifically choosing to target with their campaigns.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment specifically on why the ad was removed. Twitter's advertising policy for political advertisements is broad, but reserves the right to make restrictions on a country-level.

"Twitter permits political advertising, which includes political campaigning and issue advertising, but there may be additional country-level restrictions," says Twitter's advertising policies. "In addition to Twitter Ads policies, all political content must comply with applicable laws regarding disclosure and content requirements, eligibility restrictions, and blackout dates for the countries where they advertise."

Xinhua news agency still appears to be running at least two other advertisements critical of the protests, according to Twitter's advertising transparency center.

"@SpeakerPelosi should fly to Hong Kong to see what the true facts are, instead of watching media coverage, says an Australian who was stranded at the Hong Kong int'l airport," reads one tweet, which accompanies a video of a man in an airport.

Another promoted tweet, which was published early Monday morning, praises Hong Kong police for their handling of the protests, which have included up to 1.7 million in the streets at their peak.

"I strongly feel that the role and the actions of the #HongKong police have been as tolerant as any other police force on the planet would have been," reads a purported quote from a Hong Kong police officer.

The protests in Hong Kong, which are on their 11th week, started over a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to China to face trial, instead of receiving due process in the country. Hong Kong is technically a part of China, but under an agreement, has been running its own separate system of government since the British returned it to China in 1997.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

What you need to know about 8chan, the controversial site tied to the El Paso shooting
Verizon’s unlimited plans are getting cheaper. Here’s what you should know
—What CEOs, bankers, and tech execs think about a coming recession
—How an alleged Amazon theft ring got the goods
—Boeing adds a second flight control computer to the 737 Max
Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune's daily digest on the business of tech.