China media war a timely warning

By Hu Yuan-hui 胡元輝  / 

Tue, Sep 10, 2019 - Page 8

On Aug. 19, Twitter and Facebook announced that they had deleted a large number of accounts found to have been spreading disinformation relating to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Beijing was directly fingered as the culprit by the two social media giants.

The revelations provide firm evidence of China’s long-established 50 Cent Army and revealed that it is using “coordinated inauthentic behavior” to manipulate public opinion.

However, the response measures published by Twitter and Facebook are perhaps even more revealing.

Facebook and Twitter are used frequently by Hong Kongers, so it does not take a leap of imagination to postulate that Beijing’s information war against Hong Kong is focused on both these social media platforms.

In Twitter’s press release, the company said that it had deleted “936 accounts originating from within the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” which represented a “significant state-backed information operation.”

Facebook’s press release stated that it had removed “seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts” originating in China and focused on Hong Kong.

The press release went on to say: “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”

Like Twitter, Facebook described the actions as “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

What is “coordinated inauthentic behavior”? Put simply, it is a way to conceal the original identity and intent of posters and fan pages to conduct a coordinated disinformation campaign, for which there might be a political or economic motive.

The Facebook press release emphasized that the basis for the takedowns was their deceptive nature and intention to mislead — not a judgement on the veracity of the content posted.

What Twitter and Facebook define as coordinated inauthentic behavior has been in existence for some time; some of the deleted accounts have actually been around since 2009. Additionally, many of these accounts are the digital equivalent of “sleeper cell” agents, staying below the radar for many years and only surfacing after Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests blew up.

Many of these accounts also have exactly the same number of followers and likes.

Another intriguing aspect is that, as is widely known, Facebook and Twitter can only be accessed from outside China’s “Great Firewall.” However, some of the deleted accounts were operated from “unblocked” IP addresses inside China.

Of course, similar coordinated inauthentic behavior has occurred during and around important elections in Europe and the US. In these instances the bad actors were identified as Russia and Iran. This is the first time that the Chinese government has been directly accused of engaging in such activity, although many China observers worry that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

There are already many telltale signs that Beijing has been conducting an information war against Taiwan for some time. Is it therefore not strange that, to date, no evidence has been revealed?

However, coordinated inauthentic behavior is notoriously difficult to detect. Facebook has previously said that it is necessary to combine humans and technology to be able to gradually restrict inauthentic activity on its platform.

According to Facebook, the first step relies on human experts whose job is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack. Once an instance of coordinated inauthentic behavior is identified, technology is employed to detect and remove similar inauthentic activity. This interplay between humans and technology allows social media companies to inhibit fake activity.

Social media companies including Facebook have repeatedly called for close cooperation with law enforcement agencies, data security experts and other platforms to root out coordinated inauthentic behavior on their platforms, in such a way that it does not infringe upon freedom of speech.

During last year’s mid-term elections in the US, following a tip-off from the FBI, Facebook detected coordinated inauthentic behavior from outside the US. The removal of accounts relating to the Hong Kong protests was a result of cooperation with Twitter. This demonstrates the importance of collaborating with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure victory in the online information war.

A number of studies and reports have uncovered evidence proving that Taiwan has already been the victim of fake information attacks. Many observers worry that Taiwan’s feeble firewall has given bad actors free rein to influence and interfere in the nation’s domestic affairs.

While there are perhaps grounds for concern, since the version of coordinated inauthentic behavior encountered in Taiwan has not yet been publicly revealed by the authorities, this only helps to further feed the narrative that the nation’s defenses are inadequate.

The government’s national security and data security apparatus must attack this problem with all the means at their disposal, since inauthentic online behavior and fake news constitute a national security threat that has the potential to derail Taiwan’s democracy. Social media platforms also have a duty to allocate a greater portion of personnel and resources to tackling this problem.

The public must be able to trust that the nation’s firewall is robust enough to protect against false information. Beijing’s online manipulation of the Hong Kong protest movement should serve as a timely warning to Taiwan.

Hu Yuan-hui is a professor in National Chung Cheng University’s Department of Communication.

Translated by Edward Jones