A state-run Chinese newspaper faced extensive criticisms after it claimed in a Facebook post that Hong Kong protesters were planning mass terrorist attacks on September 11.
China Daily’s Hong Kong edition said “anti-government fanatics” were planning the attacks, illustrating the post with a photograph of the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.
When asked if the claim was factually accurate and whether it was ethical to publish it, the state-run outlet sent a screenshot – which it said came from a channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram – in which a post said protesters should start killing people if their demands were not met.
The newspaper declined to answer further questions about the paper’s editorial process or why it had conflated the Hong Kong protests with the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
- Screengrab via SCMP
The incendiary post drew over 300 comments, with some criticising the newspaper for using the September 11 attack picture and others accusing it of spreading “fake news”.
“Are you guys making fun of the 911 tragedy? Insanely inappropriate to spread false information like this. Horribly wrong”.
Another said, “Please show some respect to the people who are still suffering from the 9/11 attack, and stop this inflammatory propaganda.”
On LIHKG, the Reddit-like forum used by Hong Kong protesters to organise actions, some warned that the rumours may have been created to smear the protesters.
One poster asked: “Even though everyone knows it is fake, is it possible there are Chinese Communist undercover actors pretending to be protesters to stir up trouble?”
In recent weeks Chinese state media has been increasingly forceful in spreading Beijing’s line on the Hong Kong protests as they have become increasingly violent and evolved from opposing a now-withdrawn extradition bill to calls for an investigation into claims of police brutality and universal suffrage.
The tightly controlled outlets have also escalated the rhetoric used, comparing protesters to cockroaches and even Nazis.
Last month, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube identified and removed accounts appearing to spread misinformation related to the Hong Kong protests in a “coordinated manner” on their platforms. Facebook and Twitter described the actions as linked to the Chinese government. Telegram and LIHKG, both favoured by protesters, have also faced large denial of service cyberattacks.
The Facebook post also claimed that radical protesters were plotting to blow up gas pipes, start forest fires and encouraging attacks on “non-native speakers of Catonese” – misspelling the most commonly spoken language in Hong Kong.
Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong specialising in news literacy and misinformation, said the “inept agitprop” in the China Daily post had generally been greeted with derision.
“State-sanctioned propaganda disguised as news reports could potentially be very effective in manipulating public opinion over time, but this particular post in question is the opposite of that,” he said.
Facebook did not respond to questions about whether China Daily’s post violated its policies. The tech giant said on its website that “reducing the spread of false news on Facebook is a responsibility that we take seriously,” which it would counter by taking actions such as reducing the distribution of false news and removing accounts or policies that violated its standards.
In recent weeks China Daily’s Hong Kong edition has also published a post on Facebook suggesting many of those taking part in the protests were actors and a video that claimed a protester had been carrying a grenade launcher – but other observers suggested that it was actually an Airsoft weapon used in a Paintball-like game.
China Daily currently runs 63 active ads on Facebook, according to the platform’s Ad Library.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment directly on the post, but said the company did not want its services to be “used to spread deliberate misinformation”.
“We recently announced the launch of third-party fact checking in Hong Kong with our partner AFP, as part of our efforts to curb false news in Hong Kong, and we continue to look at our policies as they relate to state-owned media,” the representative said.