Twitter on Monday announced that it would no longer accept advertisements from “state-controlled news media entities,” though accounts affected by the new rule can still use Twitter as regular users.
The new policy comes hours after the company, along with Facebook, released information they said detailed a covert state-backed social media campaign run from China has sought to undermine ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong.
“We want to protect healthy discourse and open conversation,” Twitter said in a statement posted on its website. “We believe that there is a difference between engaging in conversation with accounts you choose to follow and the content you see from advertisers in your Twitter experience which may be from accounts you’re not currently following.”
The company said the new policy would only apply to “news media entities that are either financially or editorially controlled by the state.” That does not include taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters, Twitter said.
Twitter did not name any Chinese entities in its statement. But the news was published hours after the company said it identified a network of more than 900 accounts that “were 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.” Some accounts called protesters “cockroaches” or compared them to Islamic State terrorists. All the offending accounts have been taken down from Twitter and Facebook.
It also came after BuzzFeed News and other news outlets that Chinese state-run media outlets had been buying advertisements on Facebook and Twitter that portrayed the protests negatively.
This is the first time tech companies have pointed the finger at Beijing for covert efforts to influence messaging around the Hong Kong protests. Democracy demonstrators have massed throughout Hong Kong for 11 consecutive weekends.
An account that was titled “Dream News” tweeted about the demonstrators, “We don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”
The accounts posted in multiple languages and at least some of them appeared to target American audiences. One account, that was set up more than 10 years ago, said in its Twitter bio, “Conservative News from the USA and Abroad. #Catholic Defender of the Constitution of the United States.” The account claimed to support President Donald Trump.
Other accounts also purported to be operated by people in the United States, listing locations like Chicago and Long Beach, California.
Twitter initially identified the network and shared details about the accounts with Facebook. Then, Facebook identified about a dozen pages, accounts and groups that were tied to the operation.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, wrote in a blog post.
The Facebook pages were followed by about 15,000 accounts, the company said.
Twitter said many of the accounts accessed its platform using virtual private networks because Twitter is blocked in China.
China, of course, is not alone in using social media to spread unrest. Covert campaigns have been tied to Russia and Iran, among other countries.
In 2018 the U.S. Department of Justice brought charges against a Kremlin-linked troll group that had posed as American on social media in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.