“This was a blunt-force influence operation, using spam accounts to disseminate messaging, leveraging an influence-for-hire network. The predominant use of Chinese language suggests the target audiences were Hong Kongers and the overseas diaspora,” the report concluded.
The accounts have sought to condemn protesters, express support for Hong Kong authorities and spread conspiracy theories about Western involvement in the unrest, according to the analysis.
The disclosure by Twitter and Facebook of the coordinated campaign last month raised concerns that China has turned to Russia-style misinformation campaigns. There have also been reports of large-scale government-backed fabrication of content on Chinese social media and operations targeting Taiwanese politics.
ASPI’s report found the unsophisticated nature of the effort targeting Hong Kong this year contrasted with the well-planned coordination of Russia’s meddling in United States politics.
Accounts used in the Chinese campaign were repurposed spam and marketing accounts, readily available for purchase and having disseminated a wide range of content, including pornography.
ASPI concluded the way the accounts were used in the misinformation effort suggested a “rapid response to the unanticipated size and power of the Hong Kong protests rather than a campaign planned well in advance”.
The research found that Guo, who fled China four years ago and has accused senior CCP officials of corruption, was the most significant target of the China-linked accounts.
Starting in April 2017, Guo was the subject of almost 39,000 tweets from 618 accounts. The “vitriolic” attacks continued until July 2019.
The precise timing of a month-long 2018 effort targeting Gui, the Hong Kong bookseller, indicated an organised campaign rather than authentic social media activity. The posts corresponded with the working week, including gaps in activity on weekends and holidays.
Twitter suspended thousands of accounts after discovering the misinformation campaign. In a first for the company, it directly attributed the operation to the Chinese government, pointing to “reliable evidence” of a state-backed operation.
“Overall, these accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” the company said.
Twitter raised the campaign with Facebook, which then announced its own action against select accounts, pages and groups on its platform.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.