Beijing and Hong Kong are making extensive use of popular social media platforms to influence public opinion internally and to change perceptions globally, in the ongoing protests in Hong Kong - drawing strong protests from users and platform managers.
Popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have always enabled individuals and unorganised groups who are protesting against their established governments, to disseminate their message globally and synergise their movement. These sites have claimed their own neutrality and have been quick to clamp down on alleged content which they feel are inappropriate/ state-sponsored/ motivated/ fake/ part of a deliberate disinformation campaign etc.
It is common for law enforcement authorities facing public disorder to close down social media platforms. In the recent and ongoing Hong Kong protests, Chinese authorities have taken a leaf from the protesters' book and used the very same media to run their counter-narrative against the protestors and to assuage the sentiments of the mainland populace. This battle for perceptions that is being waged in cyberspace has attracted worldwide attention and condemnation.
Protests in Hong Kong have been taking place over the last two months, but Twitter and Facebook recently made official announcements that the Chinese government is utilising these platforms to spread their party line through paid content and by posing as genuine users. Google has also declared that similar content was found on YouTube.
The state television's English-language channel CGTN, the official Xinhua news agency and the Communist Party's People's Daily have all taken to Twitter and Facebook, denouncing the protesters and putting out Beijing's voice. Chinese state broadcasters endorsed the internet movement, which was started off by Chinese celebrities against the protests. The government-owned media outlets have flooded Internet platforms both inside and outside the country with stories and images portraying the Hong Kong protests as the work of "terrorists" manipulated by Western powers and "radical forces".
These moves have unleashed an unusual dynamic - in which mainland citizens who are normally subject to strict controls on their online behaviour have been using virtual private networks to bypass the “Great Firewall” and spread anti-protest messages internationally, as well as on Chinese social media sites.
Twitter has suspended 936 accounts tied to a Chinese disinformation campaign against the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” Facebook removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts in what it calls coordinated inauthentic behaviour targeting Hong Kong. They had paid to promote their coverage of Hong Kong on sites including Twitter and Facebook, which are banned on the mainland.
Twitter has now announced that it will not accept advertising dollars from any state-controlled new media entities. Facebook while not refusing paid posts, said that it will take a “close look at ads that have been raised to determine if they violate policies of the company". Google claims to have disabled 210 YouTube channels that “behaved in a coordinated manner” while uploading videos related to Hong Kong protests.
China denounced the moves by Twitter and Facebook to block accounts, saying it had a right to put out its own views.
It appears that to win the battle of perception, internally and globally, the Chinese authorities have been buying promoted tweets to boost the narrative of violence and extremism in contrast to the non-violent, peaceful image being posed by the protesters.
In 2014, under the ‘umbrella movement’ the image of a yellow umbrella was widely shared on Facebook to show support to Hong Kong’s pro-democratic movement. But presently, the protestors are sharing information with a heightened awareness of cybersecurity. Instagram has served as a platform for protesters to share visually-compelling campaign posters, slogans, as well as image/video evidence of police violence, which is something different from previous protests in Hong Kong.
All the popular social media sites are large and successful business ventures owned mainly by US corporations. In this case, the Chinese government’s efforts to spread their narrative through these popular platforms have drawn criticism and is being highlighted as a misuse of a neutral and people friendly platform.
However, this is not the first time these platforms have been used to convey the message of state actors. Almost all countries, in some form of the other, resort to this practice, in a largely subtle manner. In fact, skilful use of the same platforms including YouTube by Western powers and their proxies in their fight against terrorism has been a regular feature, as is evident to any neutral surfer of the net.
- Social media has gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike. Far-right politicians and parties that are indifferent to democratic norms benefit from the nature of modern social media platforms.
- Social media has been used by both demonstrators and authorities alike, as a tool in the battle for public opinion. The dynamics of political expression on social media can influence not only political behaviour but also the more fundamental political self-concepts of citizens.
- The abuse of social media can have more subtle corrosive effects on democracy. Authoritarians don’t win solely by spreading their own message; they win by exploiting situations under which citizens become either indifferent to democratic institutions or actively hostile to them.
- The protesters in Hong Kong, mainly the youth, consume local media content that is susceptible to spreading of disinformation. That’s because social media engages viewers in what designers call “flow,” a psychological idea adopted as a digital-design strategy by video games. Flow focuses on keeping the user moving from one element to the next, repetitively, in search of gratification from the act of consuming media rather than from engaging with its content.
- Hong Kong remains outside China’s firewall. Preserving the city’s freedom to live without the mainland’s controls has become one of the causes motivating the protests.
- Despite China’s efforts to expand its campaign through the social media platform, it has not been successful in changing global opinion, which has been overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the demonstrators in Hong Kong.
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