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Hong Kong protests

Twitter and Facebook remove China-backed disinformation on Hong Kong

Mainland bans the social media platforms but allegedly uses them to sow discord

While Twitter is banned in mainland China, the social media platform was allegedly used in a state-run campaign to discredit the Hong Kong protesters.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Twitter said Monday that it has suspended fake accounts believed to originate in China that aimed to discredit the Hong Kong demonstrations.

The social media company listed 936 accounts implicated in the disinformation campaign as well as the contents of their tweets. The accounts "deliberately and specifically" attempted to "sow political discord in Hong Kong," the company said.

The Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election via phony Twitter and Facebook accounts. Learning from this experience, Twitter has listed bogus accounts and their tweets believed to be managed by state-backed actors.

"We have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation," Twitter said of the suspended accounts. The scale of the disclosure is "the largest of its kind in the industry," according to the company.

As Twitter is blocked in mainland China, many of the accounts accessed the service through virtual private networks, according to the company. VPNs enable users to circumvent Beijing's internet restrictions -- the so-called Great Firewall.

Some accounts, meanwhile, accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China, Twitter said.

A screenshot of a fake account that Twitter said it has removed in its Aug. 19 statement.

Also on Monday, Facebook announced that it has removed five accounts that originated in China and were involved in "coordinated inauthentic behavior" focused on Hong Kong. Facebook said it acted based on a tip shared by Twitter. Seven Facebook pages and three groups were also removed.

"The individuals behind this campaign engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts," to manage pages "posing as news organizations" and also "drive people to off-platform news sites," the company said.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: "The regime in Beijing forbids the people of #China from using @Twitter or #Facebook. But it got caught creating nearly 1,000 fake social media accounts aimed at delegitimizing & promoting disinformation about supporters of #HongKongProtests."

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