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The Weaponization of Social Media in Hong Kong Protests

The upheaval in Hong Kong has captured the world’s attention, as it should. In response to Hong Kong’s consideration of a new extradition bill from Beijing, thousands from the semi-autonomous region of China have taken to the streets in response to what they see as an authoritative move from the Beijing government. There’s been weeks of marches, a two-day shutdown of the Hong Kong Airport, and at times violent clashes with police and security personnel.

Today we’re learning that Facebook and Twitter have intervened, flagging and subsequently taking down a network of accounts tied to the Chinese government. The accounts were promoting and amplifying an anti-protest message, one designed to create political division online.

It was a coordinated propaganda campaign, essentially.

Social media is obviously no stranger to platforms being utilized to manipulative political narratives and opinions. Its weaponization was the biggest takeaway from the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Mitigating the spread of falsehoods has been one of the primary focuses for Facebook and Twitter, and now they have successfully rooted out a state-sponsored social media campaign to sow disharmony among the populace.

Their swift action should be commended, but it of course begs the question: What took so long?

Peek around any corner of the social space and you’re bound to come across a conversation that devolves into acrimony. We’ve of course discovered that there are legions of bots employed to push specific messages, and many times their work is successful—reaching intended viral status. While Twitter and Facebook have made progress in the case of the strife in Hong Kong, both will need to hasten their efforts to cut these campaigns off at the pass before they have a chance to influence public opinion.

We’re a few months away from an election year, and there’s no doubt that these forces will be at work to shape—and disrupt—the conversation. Social media outlets are slowly learning the ways and means to defend against misinformation, but the next step will be to sniff it out before it spreads. Shutting down the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign is a decent start, but this will certainly continue as we head into 2020.        

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