As pro-Democracy protests continue to gain steam in Hong Kong, the Chinese military has moved into the semi-independent state in order to bolster the efforts of the Hong Kong police. With allegations of police brutality against protestors already levied by U.N. officials, many fear that China’s military presence may lead to more brutal crackdowns. In the minds of many in Hong Kong and beyond, there is a real possibility that these protests may be met with the same violence China demonstrated during similar protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
However, in the years since Chinese troops opened fire on protestors in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to suppress discussion of the incident for the same reason Hong Kong protestors have yet to face firing squads today: China and its president (for life), Xi Jinping, are well aware of the power wielded by global perceptions. For a nation that’s eager to position itself as a global economic and diplomatic superpower, the sort of negative press associated with using automatic weapons on crowds of non-violent protestors could have a significant economic and diplomatic impact. Xi’s Chinese regime are looking to squash this uproar quickly, but they have to turn public perceptions against the protest before they can do so with force. As a result, China has turned to social media to help turn the perceptual tides regarding Hong Kong.
On Monday, both Facebook and Twitter announced that they had identified Chinese-based propaganda campaigns already hard at work regarding the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, aiming to undermining the credibility of the protests and protestors.
“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”
According to Twitter, some 936 accounts originating in China were being used specifically in an attempt to shape conversations about the Hong Kong protests, which have now been ongoing for nearly three months. Facebook likewise identified pages, accounts, and groups that were started by the Chinese government in an effort to turn public sentiment away from the protestors.
“About 15,500 accounts followed one or more of these Pages and about 2,200 accounts joined at least one of these Groups,” Facebook said on Monday, adding that they were tipped off regarding the activity thanks to Twitter.
Beyond these loosely clandestine efforts to shape perceptions, China has also purchased ads directly from Twitter to the same political end. Those ads prompted an outcry from Twitter users all around the world and on Monday Twitter addressed these concerns by promising that it would no longer “allow state-controlled news media entities” to run ads on their platform — which means nearly all of Russian and Chinese media outlets will have to advertise elsewhere.
Chinese state media also recently released a rap song that includes remixed statements from President Donald Trump suggesting that the U.S. shouldn’t meddle with China’s approach to Hong Kong in an apparent effort to sway Americans (and others) that support Trump.
Matters of social media, managed perceptions, and controlling narratives are still often downplayed in portions of the American media, but for those protesting in Hong Kong, losing the “perception game” could have genuinely deadly consequences.