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Twitter is sponsoring posts by the Chinese government that are attacking protesters in Hong Kong and painting them as “violent,” according to people who called out the social media platform.
The Twitter account for Pinboard, a bookmarking service, tweeted screenshots on Saturday showing sponsored posts by Xinhua News, China’s state media agency, that refer to the situation as “escalating” and “blatant” violence.
Every day I go out and see stuff with my own eyes, and then I go to report it on Twitter and see promoted tweets saying the opposite of what I saw. Twitter is taking money from Chinese propaganda outfits and running these promoted tweets against the top Hong Kong protest hashtags pic.twitter.com/6Wb0Km6GOb— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 17, 2019
About 1.4 million people marched in peaceful protest this weekend, defying police orders, after two months of demonstrations that have at times turned chaotic, according to the Guardian. The demonstrations began when protesters refused an extradition bill, which has since been suspended. But the movement has continued with Hong Kong citizens demanding wider democratic reform.
While there have been clashes, Xinhua News has consistently maintained that the protesters alone were violent. However, outside observers such as human rights group Amnesty International reported Hong Kong police used “unnecessary and excessive use of force,” “beating protesters who did not resist,” “aggressive tactics … to obstruct journalists on site and the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray.”
The state news agency’s sponsored tweets are especially problematic given that Twitter, along with other social media platforms, remains blocked in China. The Chinese government also keeps users who use social media with a VPN under heavy scrutiny. It’s also not the first time Twitter was found to be playing by the Chinese government’s rules. In June, the platform was accused of removing many Chinese-language user accounts in the build-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
On Sunday, Pinboard shared another promoted post with the narrative China wants to reflect. In the tweet, China Xinhua News quoted “Hong Kong citizens” as saying China is their “home” and calling for “stopping violence, ending chaos.”
I just came home from a completely peaceful march where possibly a million Hong Kong residents came out, with no police in sight, to call for basic democratic rights. What greets me is straight up lies from Xinhua about "bands of thugs", courtesy of Twitter advertising. pic.twitter.com/pUTsnqZ5oN— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 18, 2019
“It is time for Twitter users (and employees) to call for stopping violence, ending chaos, and restoring order on Twitter,” Pinboard said in a follow-up tweet. “Stop selling promoted tweets to Xinhua, who are running an orchestrated state-backed campaign to discredit and dehumanize the authentic voice of Hong Kong.”
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Samira Sadeque is a New York-based journalist reporting on immigration, sexual violence, and mental health, and will sometimes write about memes and dinosaurs too. Her work also appears in Reuters, NPR, and NBC among other publications. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and her work has been nominated for SAJA awards. Follow: @Samideque