Using social media: China’s government furthers its own agenda

Huge street demonstrations have been taking place in Hong Kong since June this year.

The protests began after Carrie Lam, the leader of the semi-autonomous territory, announced a new law that would allow Hong Kong citizens suspected of various crimes to be extradited to mainland China. In response to the demonstrations, Lam initially shelved the bill, though did not withdraw it in full. Activists argued that her move was insufficient, as she could reinstate the new law at any time. The protests continued, increasing in intensity and drawing attention worldwide.

In the cyber sphere, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, we have not really seen a resurgence of OpHongKong or OpHK, both of which were popular operations with hacktivists during the previous major political protests in Hong Kong in 2014 (the Umbrella Movement).

Cyber activity this time has instead focused on the use of social media: the protesters, aware that it provides a high degree of anonymity, are using apps and platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Sina Weibo as a means by which to mobilise further support and ensure their street actions are well-attended and tightly coordinated.

But what is more interesting is that social media is also being deployed by the government to further its own agenda.

Whereas protesters might share images depicting alleged police brutality, government-sponsored activists have been posting their own accounts about violence among the demonstrators and the disruption of critical transport systems. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also posted videos of police and soldiers taking protesters into custody, and pictures of tanks and military forces amassing across the border in mainland China. While the authorities insisted these troop movements were simply regular annual military exercises being conducted by the Hong Kong Garrison of the PLA, the threat of a possible response to the protests is clear, as are the memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

An interesting article published by the South China Morning Post has also highlighted the activities of what they describe as a ’virtual army’ which has launched its own nationalist attacks from behind China’s Great Firewall. Social media platforms banned in mainland China have been deluged with memes and messages aiming to “protect Hong Kong police, protect our family”.

Broadcasting their activities live on Chinese streaming platform YY, these campaigns are apparently being carried out by “an alliance between Diba, the long-standing nationalist online forum whose members have been at the vanguard of the mainland’s online attacks, and its newest recruits, known as the 'fandom girls'". The hacktivists – who have been given training on the use of VPNs to circumvent the restrictions of the Great Firewall - claim to be unpaid. They spend their time posting nationalist rhetoric with pro-China slogans and memes.

One member of the ‘fandom’ explained how she was ‘defending’ her country: “There are hashtags on social media, such as #HongKong, where they post the bad stuff. We can’t delete that, so we just post good stuff to cover them up, so that when other people click on the tag, all they see is good stuff.” By this she means “tailor-made propaganda materials, memes, hand-drawn cartoons and pictures with slogans such as “I love HK”, “I love China” and “What a shame for Hong Kong”. (See link above).

Some accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been blocked; they include both those operated by Diba and other nationalist groups. Allegations have also been levelled against the Chinese state media, which is accused of “buying promoted tweets to boost the narrative of violence and extremism”.

Hong Kong is not the only place where protesters have galvanised the power of social media to organise demonstrators, while the authorities have been busily engaging in their own campaigns of disseminating fake news and nationalist propaganda. Over in the region of West Papua in Indonesia, activists have recently been holding large pro-independence protests and complaining about alleged racism meted out by the security forces there. In this case, the government claimed the fake news stories were being shared by the activists themselves: they cited the example of a report about police brutality, and also voiced concerns about the protesters using social media to organise their demonstrations. Unlike in Hong Kong, however, the government authorities took much firmer action: they cut off access to the internet in the affected region.

Considering a similar programme of action, it was reported at the end of August that the government in Hong Kong had sketched out plans to force internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict access to certain platforms, effectively a direct expansion of China’s Great Firewall.

The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) took the news badly, and issued a strongly-worded statement which included the following: “HKISPA would like to warn that, imposing any insensible restrictions on the open Internet would only result in more restrictions, as the original restrictions wouldn’t be effective, and ultimately the result is putting Hong Kong’s Internet behind a big firewall.”

They added: “Therefore, any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong, and would immediately and permanently deter international businesses from positing their businesses and investments in Hong Kong.”

In a new attempt to de-escalate the increasingly violent protests and neutralise the activists, Carrie Lam announced on 4 September that the Extradition Bill would be formally withdrawn.

This move addressed one of the protesters’ key demands. However, demonstrations are likely to continue, as activists are also insisting on various other measures being fulfilled by the government, including the release of all people detained during the protests, and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality; in addition, they want citizens of Hong Kong to be given the right to elect their own leaders.

Given that Lam has already refused to accede to these demands, the political unrest is likely to continue for some time. Indeed, over the weekend of 7-8 September, protesters attempted to close Hong Kong airport, and rallies and marches were held across the city.

All organisations conducting business activities in Hong Kong are therefore advised to take suitable measures to ensure their physical security. Please also be aware that cyber-criminals could use this time to launch damaging cyber-attacks against companies.