Twitter and Facebook accused China of spreading disinformation in an attempt to undermine ongoing protests in Hong Kong, as they removed hundreds of accounts allegedly linked to a state-backed scheme.

In a blog post, Twitter said it suspended a cluster of 936 accounts based in China, which acted in concert to “sow political discord” and doubts about “the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement”. It added an investigation yielded “reliable evidence” the activity was part of a “coordinated state-backed operation”.

The accounts were reportedly part of a larger network of around 200,000 spam accounts, most of which were suspended before they engaged in substantial activity.

Twitter said all of the suspensions were issued for violations of its platform manipulation policy, which prohibits spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts and evasive action.

Based on a tip from Twitter, Facebook said it similarly uncovered three Groups, seven Pages and five individual accounts linked to the Chinese government which were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. The Pages amassed a following of around 15,500, while the Groups had around 2,200 members.

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook cybersecurity policy, said in a blog post the accounts were removed based on their activity, rather than the content they posted: “The people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

He added Facebook would continue to monitor the situation and take action as needed.

In June, China was accused of launching a cyberattack against messaging app Telegram to interrupt communications between demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Policy shift
In response to the discovery, Twitter announced it will no longer accept ads from state-sponsored media outlets.

The company said its new ad policy will apply to media entities which are “financially or editorially controlled” by the government. However, it noted taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters, will be exempt.

Those impacted by the new policy will be notified “in the coming days” and will have 30 days to exit Twitter’s advertising platform before being removed.