The showdown between Twitter, Facebook and the Chinese government rose to a new level Tuesday as Beijing defended its right to spread its views online — even if the tactics violate company guidelines designed to curb the spread of disinformation.
The resistance from China, voiced by Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a news briefing in Beijing, came a day after Twitter and Facebook named the Chinese government as responsible for what they called “coordinated, inauthentic behavior” in shaping online portrayals of the political protests roiling Hong Kong. It was the first time major U.S. companies had named China as responsible for a disinformation campaign, though researchers have said for years that the government there has major, sophisticated social media operations aimed at influencing public debate.
Some of the thousands of accounts closed by the companies had profiles claiming to be from other countries, including from numerous cities in the United States, and Twitter said that technological tools called “VPNs” were used to fake the locations of users. Geng said the accounts were not the work of government disinformation teams but Chinese students and others living overseas who “of course have the right to express their point of view,” according to a Reuters report.
“What is happening in Hong Kong, and what the truth is, people will naturally have their own judgment,” Geng said. He added, “Why is it that China’s official media’s presentation is surely negative or wrong?”
Neither company responded immediately to requests for comment about Geng’s statements.
Geng’s comments underscored the challenge social media companies face in trying to combat the kind of disinformation tactics used by Russians in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and that increasingly are rampant in many countries around the world. As U.S.-based companies attempt to police online discourse globally, there is no international consensus over what qualifies as permissible speech — or permissible tactics in spreading that speech, whether it comes from government operatives or anybody else.
This emerging global debate echoes one in the United States as President Trump and many conservatives blast the social media companies for being too aggressive in blocking accounts that they regard as violating their rules for authentic discourse online, portraying such efforts as censorship of political speech. Trump held a White House summit last month highlighting these complaints.
Disinformation researchers on Monday praised Twitter and Facebook for naming the Chinese government as responsible for online campaigns that depicted the Hong Kong protests as the work of violent hooligans provoked by Western forces such as the CIA. Twitter shut down nearly 1,000 active accounts that it said was part of the operation and roughly 200,000 it said were created to help the effort. Facebook closed five accounts, seven pages and three groups on its platform it depicted as fake.
Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said, “China has undertaken information operations that, much like their foreign policy, have been much more subtle and discreet… and this is neither subtle nor discreet.”
The scale and sophistication of the effort was not particularly notable, but the decision by the companies to finger a powerful government as responsible — something companies once shied away from — was seen as an indicator of increasing assertiveness by Silicon Valley. Companies have faced serious political and public pressure in recent years to combat the fake and misleading accounts that have flooded their platforms and warped online debate worldwide.
“It would be a tough call to make for anybody to call out China in an influence operation,” said Ben Nimmo, chief of investigations for Graphika, a network analysis firm based in New York that studies online disinformation.
The moves by Facebook and Twitter could set up a major geopolitical clash over how much influence nations can exert on the ways information spreads across the Web.
China has enjoyed virtually unassailable control on social media within its borders, employing systems of strict censorship and surveillance against online topics conflicting with the government’s self-asserted ambitions, image and power.
But the social-media giants’ response suggests that the country has attempted similar information-manipulation tactics around the world, likely to boost its international support and undermine protests in Hong Kong.
Daniel Sinclair, an independent social-media researcher in New York who tracks Chinese influence, says the country’s attempts to steer online debate in the West seem to have grown recently, possibly amid anxieties over how it is being perceived amid a U.S. trade war and the Hong Kong unrest.
“This Chinese nationalism that is spreading across American and Western social media, much of it isn’t true disinformation as we understand it, but a lot of it is backed by actual state propaganda and fake news,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen their media machine working at this scale … With social media, China has new kinds of influence, and new fingers in the Western media, that they haven’t had before.”
Twitter and Facebook are not widely available in China overall but are in Hong Kong. Silicon Valley for years has sought to expand its limited footprint in the world’s most populous nation, with mixed success, as Chinese companies have become major domestic and global players in social media and other areas of advanced technology.
For some researchers, the moves have also cast a harsh spotlight on the lone social-media giant that has yet to offer comment: Google, whose YouTube has been similarly criticized for its use in the spread of political misinformation.
“Two of the three relevant companies have made public statements,” said Alex Stamos, a former security chief at Facebook who now works as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, in tweets late Monday.
For social-media companies to attribute attacks to governments, “it’s a lot harder when the actor is financially critical,” he added. Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.