How Fake News Has Engulfed Hong Kong Protests, Worsening Conflict
“There isn’t neutral, reliable media that can build a bridge between the two sides and win the trust of both.”
As Hong Kong protests against a controversial extradition bill have entered the twelfth week, misleading information and fake images on Hong Kong rallies have flooded the internet, confusing people and worsening the situation.
Western media organizations tend to report that China is using violence to quell protesters while Beijing-affiliated organizations liken demonstrators to “terrorists” as they were called when protesters occupied the Hong Kong International Airport on August 12.
Cause of Hong Kong Protests
The Hong Kong protests were kicked off in response to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to stand trial under China’s judiciary system. Protesters feared the extradition bill would lead to political suppression of Hong Kong separatists and any Hong Kong citizen who spoke out against China.
Historically, Hong Kong was a British colony which was handed over to China in 1997, under the principle of one country, two systems. As such, Hong Kong became a semi-autonomous region, except for defense and foreign affairs.
Because of the protests, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam decided to suspend the extradition bill, but that did not satisfy protesters. Protesters have five demands for Lam: revoke the bill, step down from office, release those arrested, and take back the use of the word “riot” to refer to the protest on June 12 and order an investigation into the clashes on that day, as South China Morning Post reported.
Instances of Misleading Information in the Media
The Hong Kong protests began at the end of March after the extradition bill was proposed in February. The protests have brought record numbers of people to the streets with many carrying umbrellas in a reference to Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement – another populist uprising opposed to China’s influence in Hong Kong’s elections.
The sheer size of the current Hong Kong protests have lent themselves to captivating video and still images, but also an imaging battle played out on social media and overrun with fake news. In some instances, images are altogether fake or photoshopped while in other instances information is conveniently left out of news stories to create a biased report.
In one example a BBC report focused on a police officer that wielded and pointed a gun at a crowd of protesters but ignored the fact that the officer had been hit by at least one protester as the crowd closed in on him. The officer appears to brandish the weapon out of self-defense to disperse the crowd and ensure his safety.
A Twitter account posted an alleged picture of Chinese military tanks on the Hong Kong border which quickly went viral. However, the footage was taken in Fujian province, 320 miles from the real border, as BuzzFeed News discovered. China’s foreign ministry also denied deploying troops in Hong Kong.
In another example of media bias revealed by BuzzFeed, the Chinese government-owned China Daily released two articles with distorted facts about the Hong Kong protests. On June 10, a China Daily article headline read, “800,000 Say ‘Yes to Rendition Bill.'” But the article omitted information regarding the anti-extradition bill protests which on June 9th brought one million out to the streets in opposition of the bill and instead claimed that only 240,000 opposed the bill.
A week later on June 16 two million protesters rallied to oppose the bill, but China Daily again did not accurately cover the protests. Instead, a China Daily article claimed that the Hong Kong protests were in opposition to U.S. intervention in Hong Kong affairs.
In another instance, a Facebook page posted two fake pictures allegedly showing a protester cutting off a policeman’s finger using pliers. The accompanying Chinese text translated in English read: “A group of mobsters grabbed the police, and then directly cut off the police officer’s finger with pliers.”
AFP Fact Check debunked the claim, saying that the actual photos showed a protester holding a police officer’s baton after he grabbed it at a July 14 protest in a shopping mall.
AFP also fact-checked photos which showed alleged Hong Kong celebrities participating in the protests and found that the photos were doctored and the celebrities images were photoshopped into the protest photos.
Later, journalists in Hong Kong admitted facing pressure to spread such hoaxes from a Hong Kong public broadcaster, as Hong Kong Free Press reported. The channel said it is investigating the case.
Hong Kong police have also claimed that unfair reports had prompted bullying against Hong Kong police officers on social media.
“I can say the medias (media) are quite biased. They are only showing to the public what the police is (are) doing by only videoing all the police actions. They will never show the public what the other side is doing,” the chairman of Hong Kong Police Inspectors’ Association Ng Wai-Kei said. in an interview on August 9.
According to lawyer Rachel Lao, a member of a pro-democracy legal group, China’s state-run media is to blame and the driving force behind discrediting pro-democracy rallies and events.
“The Chinese Communist Party is skilled at creating confusion among the public in China and shaming any such movements,” Lao told AFP.
“Because the news is so obviously fake to Hongkongers, they are now very sceptical of any news they receive,” she said.
Media to Blame for Worsening the Conflict
Masato Kajimoto, fake news expert and journalism professor, warned of media’s crucial role to report accurately and fairly.
“In this age of misinformation and disinformation, the news media should not report anything they haven’t independently verified,” the professor told Hong Kong Free Press.
Phillis Zhu, a Chinese student living in Hong Kong, said that there are no neutral media outlets on either side, blaming the press for fueling the tension.
“There isn’t neutral, reliable media that can build a bridge between the two sides and win the trust of both,” Phillis Zhu, a mainland Chinese student living in Hong Kong, told AFP.
“Actually, media is causing the conflicts.”
Twitter Busts Chinese Ring
Just this Monday, Twitter disclosed a “significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change.”
A statement released by Twitter’s safety team revealed that it had identified and suspended 936 accounts originating from China and engaged in “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.”
“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests,” the statement added.
The accounts were reportedly using VPN’s to mask their location as Twitter is banned in China. A larger “spammy” network of 200,000 accounts were “proactively suspended” before they became active on the service, Twitter reported.
Facebook has deleted similar fake accounts although to a lesser extent than Twitter’s purge. Facebook reportedly deleted seven pages, three Facebook Groups and five personal accounts with links to a disinformation campaign against the Hong Kong protests.