Twitter, Facebook suspend hundreds of Chinese accounts for 'coordinated' anti-protest messages

Major social media networks Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. said it has found hundreds of accounts originating in China that tried to “sow political discord” - including attempts at “undermining the legitimacy” of the protests - in Hong Kong.

In a blog post this morning, Twitter made a public disclosure that officials found 936 accounts “originating from within the People’s Republic of China” that was “behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests.”

Twitter said all accounts discovered in the operation were suspended for violating the platform’s manipulation policies, including rules against spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts and ban evasion. 

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” Twitter said in its statement. “… We hope that by being transparent and open we will empower further learning and public understanding of these nefarious tactics.”

The revelation comes as the heated debate over Hong Kong spilled overseas into cities like Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto over the weekend. 

Large-scale rallies from both pro-Hong Kong protest factions - who says the city is losing its guaranteed judicial independence and suffering from police brutality - and pro-China groups calling protesters “rioters” and “separatists” faced off at several locations in Vancouver on Saturday and Sunday.

In addition, China's activities in cyberspace have been a hotly debated issue in Canada's national security circles, with several observers noting the risk using telecom equipment from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to complete the nascent Canadian 5G wireless network.

Twitter, in its release, posted a number of the examples it found to be “reliable evidence” of a coordinated campaign. Almost all posts included photos of protesters in black destroying public property. 

Twitter said an additional 200,000 accounts created after the initial suspension of the 936 accounts were also proactively suspended before they became “substantially active.”

Following the Twitter statement, Facebook said it acted on a Twitter tip and found similar attempts on its platform, discovering five fake accounts, seven pages and three groups: “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”

In Facebook’s posted examples, photos linked black-clad Hong Kong protesters to ISIS fighters.

Both Facebook and Twitter are banned in mainland China behind “the Great Firewall,” and the public can only access the websites using virtual private networks, or VPNs. However, Twitter officials said some banned accounts were accessing Twitter through “specific unblocked IP addresses” from within China.