The Twitter War for Hong Kong Isn’t Just From China
Emmi Bevensee is a Mozilla Open Web Fellow and University of Arizona PhD student in the iSchool using machine learning and data science to analyze and combat the next generation of disinformation and hate online. @emmibevensee and @DisinfoResearch on Twitter.
You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote, “A lie can spread halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” But with a whiff of irony, Churchill never actually made this comment. Even our sources of truth can get caught up in lies. In the era of the internet this fake quote is even more true. We are deeply interconnected which aids both the spread of information and misinformation. As rival intelligence agencies and corporations fight for our attention, the average media consumer can get torn apart in the resulting confusion. It can feel nearly impossible to figure out what’s really happening these days. This is a big deal when the majority of people get their news from social media. With power centralized around nuclear-armed (or aspiring) authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, Khomeni, and Kim Jong-un, something as petty as Twitter war about tariffs threatens the lives of billions of civilians. Surviving the current risks to earth itself means transcending information warfare rather than just picking a team and sticking with it. We need to chart a path through this inter-imperialist information warfare. Hong Kong is the latest in a long line of complex battlefields.
- “Inaccurate information might result from either a deliberate attempt to deceive or mislead (disinformation), or an honest mistake (misinformation).” -Hernon, P. (1995). Disinformation and misinformation through the internet: Findings of an exploratory study.
- Within these categories there are further subtleties:
- Mostly true, mostly false, rumor, conspiracy, etc.
- Conspiracies are usually false speculations about complex plots behind publicly believed stories of events.
- Propaganda is the utilization of combinations of disinformation, conspiracies, and manipulative uses of partially true information to advance a political agenda.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all removed accounts charged with distributing Chinese state propaganda aimed at influencing public perception of the protests in Hong Kong. Some 50-cent army accounts were easy to identify while others were higher level information warfare including fake news sites. Similarly, through bot-detection algorithms I found that around 23% of the most active Twitter accounts using hashtags against the HK protests showed bot-like (automated or semi-automated fake accounts) characteristics. The neutral hashtags were even more flooded at 34% with the pro-HK protest hashtags only showing about 12% bot-like behavior. Some of the bot-like accounts I found tweeting about the Hong Kong protests such as @Cacey0612 has since repeatedly changed their username and handle. The bots are mostly low-level and unconvincing, but they imply greater manipulations beyond our ability to detect. Additionally, the small accounts are usually “amplification bots” designed to promote a central bot in a botnet. Many of the likely state-controlled accounts would just RT People’s Daily, China and tweet this same exact verbiage with a strange font in what appears to be a coordinated attack, “𝙃𝙤𝙣𝙜 𝙆𝙤𝙣𝙜 𝙞𝙨 𝙥𝙖𝙧𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝘾𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙖 𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧”.
Before any of these reports though, Chinese state-media had claimed that the CIA was influencing the protests themselves.
They wrote, “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact and it does not take a Sherlock Holmes to conclude that the CIA has been — to whatever degree removed — behind the more extreme acts.” Similar sentiments are echoed by Ben Norton who went so far as to claim that the use of normal protest techniques such as Non-Violent Direct Action and barricades proved the CIA’s involvement — as if no one has made barricades or used NVDA without the CIAs help before. He’s overcompensating for the very real history of U.S. meddling by failing to question the perceived underdog. This kind of conspiracy peddling, when the facts are damning enough, undermines truth.
Beijing threatened retaliation to foreign meddling stating, “It is a miscalculation of the U.S. to believe that Taiwan and Hong Kong are pieces to be played in its game against China.” and added, “That the mainland has so far remained restrained despite all the provocations does not mean that it has no capability to bring the situation in Hong Kong under control. And the same is true with Taiwan. The mainland always hopes that the island will be reunited with its motherland in a peaceful manner, but if it is necessary the People’s Liberation Army will not hesitate to take it back by the use of force.”
While attempts to minimize the use of massive intelligence and surveillance operations to repress protests in Hong Kong are obviously nefarious, it should go without saying that a bit of paranoia about CIA involvement in Chinese politics is more than warranted. However different, the use of intelligence and surveillance by the U.S. to suppress domestic protests and spark foreign protests is, there are a great deal of commonalities as well. Understanding the differences and similarities in approaches to the Hong Kong protests tells a deeper story about the complexity of the modern information war we’re all trapped in. But first we need to zoom out a bit and understand the context.
State controlled media is terrible for a well-informed populace. A free-press is a necessary part of the struggle for other civil liberties. China’s centralized power to shut-down any form of dissent coupled with its platforming of fascists such as Aleksander Dugin should chill you to the bone. However, it’s not as if media in the U.S. is free from governmental or corporate interference. Trumps efforts to utilize legitimate critiques of massive corporate media giants in order to spread distrust of any outlet that speaks against him is a classic tactic of authoritarian centralism. It’s the first step towards shutting down a free press and controlling public thought in order to protect personal power. It may seem like ages ago in the Trump time-squeeze but recall that Trump casually joked with Putin about killing journalists. Or the time he retweeted a meme of a train running over a CNN journalist. Or the time he spoke positively about someone who got assault charges for body-slamming a reporter for the Guardian saying, “He’s a great guy.” There were then attempted bomb attacks targeting Trump critics including CNN that were obviously connected to his rhetoric.
Even deeper down the rabbit-hole, many U.S. Americans may be surprised to know that the US-government, and particularly the CIA, has been long in the business of state-controlled media and propaganda machines including radio and news outlets. The U.S. Agency for Global Media is the foreign propaganda wing of the U.S. government. On their board is none other than Mike Pompeo who, as the former director of the CIA, managed, “intelligence collection, analysis, covert action, counterintelligence, and liaison relationships with foreign intelligence services.” Other’s may recognize him more so as the controversial current Secretary of State under Trump. An intelligence connected Secretary of State influencing a media organization is state-media.
The USAGM supervises 5 different media outlets: Voice for America (formerly headed by the CIA’s Henry Loomis, p.68 of Legacy of Ashes), Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (oversees Radio and TV Martí), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and notably for Hong Kong, Radio Free Asia. While the CIA and U.S. government used to be contented to set-up radio-stations in countries they were trying to coup, with the advent of social media they have modernized. Now all of these media outlets have Twitter accounts. U.S. spy agencies have been utilizing fake social-media accounts since at least 2012 while new FOIAs show some of the ways they perform dragnet surveillance on social media. Voice for America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting are federal organizations while RFE, MEBN, and RFA are all funded through grants from the USAGM. Though technically structured differently than each other, they all answer directly to the board of the USAGM, which ultimately answers to the president and intelligence agencies that steer it despite their endless claims of to be “independent”. Their priorities can therefore be said to be, if nothing else, at least a clear proxy for U.S. intelligence’s strategic priorities.
Radio Free Asia, like the CIA itself, pays close attention to the goings on in Hong Kong from the Umbrella revolution in 2014 to the current protests. Analysis of likes and retweets shows that their reach is continually expanding.
Their interest in Hong Kong has piqued again with recent protests. From just August 4th to the 24th they posted or RT’d about Hong Kong 60 times.
Despite their relatively small reach compared to Chinese state media, they are also a state-controlled agency attempting to influence public perception around the protests.
In understanding the modus-operandi of Radio Free Asia it’s useful to investigate the history of its namesake, Radio Free Europe. RFE was established at the beginning of the Cold War as a means of transmitting anti-Communist propaganda behind the Iron Curtain. It was the brainchild of “George F. Kennan (United States Department of State) and Frank G. Wisner (Office of Policy Coordination, later the United States Central Intelligence Agency).” Wisner worked closely with the Allen Dulles, the former CIA director and mad-scientist visionary behind much of the CIA’s modern role as a shadow-government, to ensure that RFE would become a weapon of political warfare. Tim Weiner writes in “Legacy of Ashes”, “The planning [for RFE] began in late 1948 and early 1949, but it took more than two years to get the radios on the air. Dulles became the founder of a National Committee for a Free Europe, one of many front organizations financed by the CIA in the United States. The Free Europe board included General Eisenhower; Henry Luce, the chairman of Time, Life, and Fortune; and Cecil B. DeMille, the Hollywood producer — all recruited by Dulles and Wisner as a cover for the true management (p. 36).” He later writes that interference by Wisner, “created a split signal at Radio Free Europe: The radios’ director, OSS [predecessor to the CIA] veteran Bob Lang, complained about “the intrusion in each and every element of our affairs” by Wisner and his lieutenants. The CIA’s Cord Meyer, the division chief in charge of Radio Free Europe, said he felt “pressure to distort the purpose of the radios (p. 125).” The famous James Reston of the New York Times noted that the CIA’s connection to “unnamed radio stations, publications, and labor unions were now also in jeopardy. In short order, two decades of secret work by the CIA was laid bare (p. 271).” Later declassified documents confirmed the extent of the power of this political warfare when the CIA utilized RFE to stir up a series of Hungarian anti-Soviet Union revolts that resulted in mass slaughter by making false promises of reinforcements from the West.
Radio Free Asia has an annual budget of $43.1 million, 253 employees, and an audience of over 50.7 million people in 9 different languages. It is impossible to know exactly how closely Radio Free Asia follows in the footsteps of its parents but it’s nonetheless ironic when they bemoan state-media outlets elsewhere like this article about Youtube’s take-down of accounts controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Similarly when they make comments such as, “The checks are believed to be part of a concerted campaign to ensure that no unedited news of the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests is able to reach residents of mainland China, as Beijing tries to promote its view of the protests as an attempt by foreign powers to stage a “color revolution” in China far beyond its borders.” and “Two official procurement documents seen by RFA for Twitter and Facebook specialists respectively offered contracts worth up to 1.3 million yuan each to companies that can boost their follower counts on those platforms by more than half a million.” completely without any form of citation it draws into question their legitimacy. One account that showed signs of being at least semi-automated, 于中川 @fengshenji, also retweets Radio Free Asia.
In the same way that the U.S. cannot hope to be a democracy unless its officials are also capable of being tried by the International Criminal Court, if Twitter hopes to uphold journalistic integrity and a free press, it must enforce that from the U.S. as well. Otherwise the recent statement from Twitter Safety saying that they would not allow advertisements from state-run accounts rings hollow. Recent examples of Twitter allowing promoted tweets by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs during an election cycle that tried to associate the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement with terrorism highlight this even more clearly.
The CIA’s central manifests allow them to engage in disinformation campaigns abroad with the stipulation that this information not return home and become in effect a disinformation operation against the U.S. American populace. However, in the age of social media, strict nationalism breaks down. It’s impossible to spread a lie in one country and prevent it from ever reaching people in another.
The CIA’s role in foreign politics hasn’t just been assassinating leaders, terrifying opportunism, arranging for coups, paying off brutal gangs and saboteurs, it’s also been crafting narratives (Legacy of Ashes). While the CIA is generally less effective at this than their Russian (The Sword and the Shield: Mitrokhin Archives) and Chinese counterparts, their role is far from negligible. While the history of the CIA in Asia suggests they are likely intervening on the ground with things like pay-offs and selective reporting, this does not delegitimize the protests themselves because the other legacy of the CIA is failure and incompetence.
People can desire and fight for freedom without it needing to be categorized as one-hundred percent some Russian or U.S. psy-op. Even if the CIA are intervening, so is China and to a seemingly greater extent (or at least in different ways). Further, the people on the ground are still sentient humans making decisions for themselves even if some are influenced by propaganda. The most likely case is that the CIA, much like Beijing, is attempting to intervene in the complex process of social change in heavy-handed top-down methods and being thwarted at every turn by both the complexity itself and the genuinely experienced protest movements who oppose both Chinese authoritarianism and Western interventionism.
So maybe it is time to retire the falsely attributed and simple Churchill quote for something more able to grapple with the complexity of truth and politics. The wisdom of Arendt rings true, now more than ever:
“Facts assent themselves by being stubborn, and their fragility is oddly combined with great resiliency — the same irreversibility that is the hallmark of all human action. In their stubbornness, facts are superior to power; they are less transitory than power formations, which arise when men get together for a purpose but disappear as soon as the purpose is either achieved or lost.”
We must harness the stubborn resilience of politically uncomfortable facts, for our freedom, like truth itself, transcends the bickering of authoritarians and propagandists.