Hong Kong social media attacks – what they are, what they’re not

Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters Wikicommons Cypp0847

A report by Australian Strategic Policy Institute about the burst of disinformation found on Twitter around the Hong Kong protests exposes the skills gap between China and Russia in this sphere.

ASPI concludes that the Chinese-language Twitter ops are “likely to have been a rapid response to the unanticipated size and power of the Hong Kong protests rather than a campaign planned well in advance.”

In other words, it was likely a hastily-assembled “brute force” operation designed to distract the China-language diaspora from news of the Hong Kong protests. The networks, which appear to be hired out for a variety of commercial and non-commercial campaigns, were also used to try to shape views around certain individuals, such as dissident billionaire Miles Kwok.

The analysis of the Twitter campaign highlights the still inward-looking nature of active Chinese social media propaganda and influence campaigns.

ASPI quotes a study that estimates the Chinese government “pays for as up to 448 million inauthentic social media posts and comments a year.

“The aim is to distract the population from social mobilisation and collective forms of protest action,” ASPI notes. “This approach to manipulating China’s domestic internet appears to be much less effective on Western social media platforms that are not bounded by state control.”

In fact, it appears China is a paying for social media presence.

Contrast that with Russia’s efforts on social media in which networks are built mostly in the open.

A fundamental difference between China and Russia’s approach to propaganda to date is that, while China will pay for propaganda, Kremlin figures out ways to make people pay for the propaganda they crave.

They do this through endless “causes:” protest groups, political campaigns, extremist political organisation, and utopian causes.

This is a self-funding approach, very much tailored to the the internet “not bounded by state control.” The relative success of cryptocurrency will likely make this even more common.

I’m thinking not just of causes that cross paths with Russia-linked figures: Ed Snowden and Julian Assange.

In a study of social media activity linked to Russia, for example, George Mason University researchers found fraudulent crowdfunding claiming to support US veterans. Whether it traces back to Russian crime is not clear. But the prospect of the overlap between Russian fraudster and Russian disinfo experts is possible.

All of this suggests that in the open internet, Russian actors, to date, are more accomplished at assembling, galvanizing and motivating audiences.

Russia has a long history of propaganda and manipulation in the West. Its heritage operating in the Western space stretches back more than a century.

In its latest wave, Russia has been busy. Princeton University researchers calculated in the six years to 2019 almost three-quarters of foreign interference efforts were conducted by Russia.

When we talk about China’s online influence campaigns, they function at a different level.

Rather than a Russian-style of activation and galvanizing of communities online, China is more likely to create new platforms that overlap business, trade, payments and influence.

They are in a whole different game, one that is nothing like what Russians are doing online.

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