Chinese state media bought Twitter ads to spread disinformation about Hong Kong protests

It's hardly the first time Twitter has been used to amplify questionable narratives.

Twitter was posting advertisements on behalf of Chinese state media that portrayed the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as “increasingly violent,” according to the social media bookmarking site Pinboard.

Ads originating with Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government’s official media outlet, falsely reported that “All walks of life in Hong Kong called for a brake to be put on the blatant violence and for order to be restored,” according to Pinboard, a platform where ads and social media activity are catalogued and analyzed.

Chinese officials are trying to disrupt international media coverage showing that the protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, are mostly peaceful. There have been eruptions of violence, such as when police fired bean bags at demonstrators, injuring one woman’s eye, and when authorities dispersed protesters by beating them with clubs.

An estimated 1.7 million people marched Aug. 18 in a peaceful protest calling for reforms such as the removal of an extradition law and the removal of the Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong. Beijing has reacted with an overwhelming police presence and a military buildup on the border of Hong Kong, a special administrative region that’s semi-autonomous.


Twitter has removed the ad flagged by Pinboard, but a spokesman did not respond to questions about the reach and length of the ad campaign.

Pinboard called on Twitter to disclose how much money it’s received from Xinhua, how many ads it ran for Xinhua since the Hong Kong protests began and how those ads were targeted.

Twitter is blocked in mainland China, but pro-Umbrella Movement conversations have generated a mostly positive reaction on social media.

“Every day I go out and see stuff with my own eyes, and then I go to report it on Twitter and see promoted tweets saying the opposite of what I saw,” tweeted Pinboard, which is run by the web developer Maciej Cegłowski. “Twitter is taking money from Chinese propaganda outfits and running these promoted tweets against the Hong Kong protest hashtags[.]”


Xinhua also has disseminated tweets that implicitly refute allegations of police brutality against Umbrella Movement demonstrators, and hint that protesters are “prepared to go extreme.” Tweets published Monday were sent between missives about the Chinese box office and flattering news about Chinese President Xi Jinping.

State media agencies have prepared for such an endeavor. The threat intelligence firm Recorded Future in March published research demonstrating how Xinhua and a range of other outlets are behind social media profiles that typically push innocuous images, like pictures of panda bears, to increase engagement and remain constant in users’ feeds. Then, when instances like the pro-democracy movement occur, the same state-controlled agencies leverage that trust in an attempt to manipulate public opinion in subtle ways.

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