• As social media-savvy activists run a grass-roots public relations campaign, they have come up against nationalistic mainlanders egged on by state media.
  • There is a clear dichotomy between how the movement has been portrayed on the internet within and beyond the mainland.

Some of the coverage by the international arms of Chinese state media – promoted largely through videos posted on major social media platforms – marks a significant shift in tone and content as they seek to push the message that foreign influences are at work and play up violent incidents.

Over the past decade the central government has spent an estimated US$6.6 billion expanding its international media presence as part of its efforts to make its voice heard abroad.

While some of the images of violence and disorder highlighted in these reports have also appeared in Western outlets, observers said the state media coverage had only showed one side of the story – ignoring the pro-democracy side’s views or accusations of police brutality – or taking clips out of context.

One video that was widely shared on mainland social media platforms suggested a protester was carrying a modified version of a US military M320 grenade launcher, but in the English versions it was described a “modified replica”.

By contrast, a New York Times report said it was an airsoft gun used in paintball-style games.

Cook said such coverage “shows what they can do when they want to” and that while state media may have used a “bunch of fluff” to help build its international audience, when they “feel like they need it” the tone will shift.

Hong Kong’s summer of protests looks very different from inside and outside the Great Firewall that encircles the internet in mainland China.

“If people already have this stereotype that CCTV is state media and they’ve already defined the movement as a democratic movement, when CCTV tries to present another picture or another side of the story, I do not know how many people will accept it,” Chin said.

She also argued that the “most important barrier” for Chinese state media overseas was audience distrust.

“If people already have this stereotype that CCTV is state media and they’ve already defined the movement as a democratic movement, when CCTV tries to present another picture or another side of the story, I do not know how many people will accept it,” Chin said.

“People in [the West] do not consume government-sanctioned news reports from China as their primary source of information,” said Masato Kajimoto, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

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Hong Kong protests put Chinese state media’s drive to win over an international audience to the test

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On Monday morning, the top trending topic on Weibo, China’s highly regulated version of Twitter, featured a Shanghai tourist who was “harassed and beaten” during a massive pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on Sunday evening. It racked up 520 million views.

A prominent video on the topic from Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily showed the man, surnamed Ma, telling reporters about protesters accosting and accusing him of photographing their faces, under the tagline: “Is this the ‘safety’ that rioters are talking about?”

But in Hong Kong, where there is unfettered access to the internet, the focus was on the peaceful Sunday demonstrations, which organisers said drew 1.7 million people despite heavy rain.

An estimated 1.7 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday. Photo: Robert Ng

An estimated 1.7 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday. Photo: Robert Ng

As the city enters an eleventh week of anti-government protests, these parallel universes have resulted in antagonism and conflict online. It has seen ugly exchanges playing out across social media between young Hong Kong activists and mainlanders, including from internet trolling groups.

The social media-savvy protesters, tapping into experience from the 2014 “umbrella movement”, have formed a grass-roots public relations campaign, with protest art made to go viral and packaged content about police violence and government ineptitude.

Encrypted app Telegram and LIHKG have been “very important and effective” for their on-the-ground coordination and strategy discussion, with more open platforms such as Facebook used to widely disseminate information, said Michael Chan, an associate professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication.

In contrast to the Hong Kong protesters’ “young, dynamic and creative movement”, mainland Chinese were not as well versed in the language of international liberal discourse, said Florian Schneider, a senior lecturer in modern Chinese politics at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

That includes the state media-endorsed Diba forum, a secretive and fiercely nationalist group that prides itself in internet trolling and targeted harassment of those aligned with the protesters.

“The social media efforts from mainland China, with their nationalist outlook and law-and-order rhetoric, look like crude CCP propaganda and are unlikely to get much traction among foreign media users,” Schneider said. “[It] works well in [mainland China], where nationalism is often the default mindset for making sense of politics.”

Chinese state media has led the charge online, with state news agency Xinhua posting a cartoon on Facebook depicting Hong Kong protesters as cockroaches and state broadcaster CCTV posting a poem on Twitter likening demonstrators to Nazis. The English arm of CCTV even created a rap video taking aim at the protesters, with lyrics like: All I see is a beautiful dream turning to a nightmare / Can I say hi there! / Hong Kong they all liars.

Yuan Zeng, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, said the Chinese leadership had been “strategically institutionalising social media” into the party’s propaganda machine with strict censorship and state media-led narratives. She said it had been effective and created a “dangerous ideological divide” between mainlanders and Hongkongers.

“You can observe an “information curve” on the topic of Hong Kong during the past months: from no mention at all at the beginning to dry official statements, to today’s all-round bellicose propaganda campaign,” she said. “These grass-root campaigns [like Diba] are of course state-sanctioned. State media also use social media to echo and endorse such campaigns, which are largely aggressive and somehow feature a Cultural Revolution style.”

One of the fiercest online battles has been between LIHKG users and members of the Diba troll army, which has led targeted harassment of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong such as Canto-pop singer Denise Ho Wan-sze and pan-democrat lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching. But one “battle expedition” on July 22 by Diba to disrupt LIHKG backfired when members had their real identities and personal information leaked onto the forum, which requires registration through a genuine IP address.

Still, Diba was undeterred and has continued to mobilise its trolls to flood the social media accounts of those sympathising with Hong Kong’s protesters.

On the other side, Hong Kong social media users have sought to repel wumao trolls – or users allegedly paid 50 cents by Beijing to post nationalistic comments – by publicly feigning gratitude to them for assisting with anti-China actions, hoping the censors will take note and shut down their accounts.

With emotionally charged battles being waged across the internet, users on both sides of the Great Firewall have also been vigilant about potential infiltration of their groups by outsiders. That has seen Hong Kong protesters using tactics such as communicating in Konglish – an internet language combining phonetically romanised Cantonese with English that is difficult to understand without knowledge of Hong Kong youth culture and language.

One post in Konglish on LIHKG said if there was a suspected “ghost” or infiltrator, they should be asked if they could understand something in the informal internet language. “If he cannot read and understand, then you will know if he is a man or a ‘ghost’,” it said.

As the protests continue, misinformation and disinformation may continue to plague the protesters in particular. Schneider said cherry-picked instances of bad protester behaviour and false information could influence public opinion about the movement, which was key to maintaining its momentum.

#RobertReview: 9  | 10

Internet Trolling Groups by Nationalistic Mainlanders in cherry-picking bad protester behaviour and Fake News from CCP News Dailies.

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China’s Great Firewall no barrier to ugly online battles over Hong Kong protests

Published: 19th August 2019.