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China is using fake social media accounts to spread disinformation about Hong Kong protesters
In modern disinformation warfare, social media is the main battlefield.
- Twitter and Facebook say they've deleted multiple accounts that appear to be connected to a state-backed disinformation campaign.
- The accounts paint the Hong Kong protesters in an extremely negative light, with some calling them cockroaches.
- In Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been marching for 11 weeks, in what started as a fierce objection to a bill that would extradite Hong Kong citizens to China.
Facebook and Twitter said they've removed suspicious accounts and pages that have been spreading disinformation about protesters in Hong Kong. Both social media companies said the accounts appear to be linked to a coordinated smear campaign backed by the Chinese government.
Posts from these accounts portray the protesters as radical and violent. One example posted to Facebook reads, in part: "They will shoot to kill with a slingshot. They took a nurse's right eye. They are the Hong Kong cockroaches." Another post likens the protesters to ISIS fighters. On Twitter, one message read, "We don't want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!"
Facebook said it had deleted five accounts, seven pages, and three groups, all of which were followed by more than 15,000 other accounts, combined.
In a blog post, Twitter wrote that many of these suspicious accounts used virtual private networks (VPNs) to mask their IP addresses. But some that didn't use VPNs had IP addresses in mainland China.
"The accounts we are sharing today represent the most active portions of this campaign; a larger, spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts — many created following our initial suspensions — were proactively suspended before they were substantially active on the service," Twitter wrote.
Twitter also ran sponsored posts — paid for by Chinese state-controlled media — criticizing the Hong Kong protesters, according to a new report from Business Insider.
"Two months on, the escalating violence in Hong Kong has taken a heavy toll on the social order," one sponsored tweet read, adding, "all walks of life in Hong Kong called for a brake to be put on the blatant violence and for order to be restored."
Twitter will reportedly begin banning state-backed media in a month. Currently, Facebook doesn't plan to ban state-backed media posts.
China is taking notes from Russia
The New York Times wrote that China has "adopted Russia's playbook" in its recent string of social media manipulation. That seems true. After all, even though both nations are known for using censorship and disinformation to control public opinion, they've historically used different strategies to do so. At the 2019 RSA Conference, an annual IT event, researchers described the basic difference between the two: Russia's strategy is disruptive and destructive, China's is about using wide-reaching control to paint a positive image of the state.
"Today, China employs three primary tactics to control people online," Kelly Sheridan wrote in an article for Dark Reading, in which she spoke with Priscilla Moriuchi, head of nation-state research at Recorded Future. "The first is outright censorship: People are blocked from posting comments or posts on certain topics, and recipients of banned messages don't receive them. Next up is social media regulation: Platforms including Twitter and Facebook are blocked, and other social media is required to comply with state censorship organizations. Finally, it distributes fake comments."
China's goal, it seems, is to fill its censored internet with positive comments about the state. Meanwhile, Russia's strategy is markedly more offensive.
"Researchers pinpointed several trends in [Russia's] election disruption reinforced across social media platforms: a clear preference for one candidate, targeting of specific opponents, real-world impact (voter suppression), and secessionist/insurrectionist messages," Sheridan wrote. "Their goals are disruptive and destructive; as a result, their social media operations use similar tactics."
China knows how successful Russia has been in sowing discord in American public discourse, starting with the 2016 presidential election and, likely, continuing to this very moment. So it would be little surprise if China is simply taking notes from the Kremlin to pivot to a new style of disinformation warfare. After all, as the New York Times notes, Bangladesh, Iran, and Venezuela already have done the same.
What are Hong Kongers protesting?
For the eleventh straight weekend, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers jammed the streets of their city — undeterred by tropical rainstorms, a police ban, and the omnipresent threat of violence — to protest a proposed law that would allow officials to extradite citizens to mainland China. Now, their demands also include for leader Carrie Lam to step down, investigations into police brutality, and, in general, more democratic freedoms.
Hong Kong officials have already arrested hundreds of protestors. Chinese paramilitary forces were seen practicing crowd control in a stadium near the Hong Kong border. As of Monday, neither side has shown any sign of giving up ground anytime soon.
On Sunday, NPR spoke with Alvin Yeung, a Hong Kong lawmaker and leader of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy political party, about the ongoing protests.
"All I can say is Hong Kong people are determined, and we are not easy to give up," Yeung said. "We wish to be as peaceful as possible to tell not Hong Kong people and Beijing but also to the rest of the world that our demands are reasonable. Our demands are highly sensible. And it is the Hong Kong government that should be responsible for all this. As to strategy, Hong Kong people has been learning from Bruce Lee, the cultural master, that we have to be water. So whenever we can, we would show our force, show our power and determination. But we would try to avoid having clashes with the police."
- Should social media platforms censor hate speech? - Big Think ›
- Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science literacy can fight disinformation - Big Think ›
- Does our society incentivize disinformation? - Big Think ›
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.