In Hong Kong, disinformation and fact-checking in the midst of fire

In Hong Kong, disinformation and fact-checking in the midst of fire

You should know:

  • In June 2019, Hongkongers protested on the streets against a bill that would
    have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
  • The police estimated hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, while organizers’
    figures added up to millions.
  • They feared the bill would have been used to imprison those who oppose the
    Chinese government.
  • Later on, demonstrations evolved toward a pro-democracy movement, with five
    demands in total. Today, social media networks play a vital role in protests’
    organization, but disinformation is present in both sides of the movement.
  • In mainland China, only a few kilometers away from the former British colony,
    the reality that its citizens hear is completely divergent.
By Ian Cavazos

It was a day in June when Scarlett was on the front lines of a protest outside the legislative complex in Hong Kong, she said. She did not hear a warning from police officers, yet tear gas was fired in their direction. Authorities appeared to be recording their faces, and after officially declaring the demonstration as a “riot,” her arrest seemed forthcoming, although that did not happen.

Months later, she and her friend Fiona spend their nights in search of empty spaces on tunnels and bus stops to cover them with posters containing information that, they contend, not all media outlets cover.

Both of them put on face masks and, sometimes, they dress in black to avoid being identified in their daily lives by the police of Hong Kong, where unceasing anti-government protests have been happening in the former British colony throughout the past five months, and disinformation is found in both sides of the movement.

There, people’s daily lives have changed. “We don’t have any gatherings or happy hour or dinner dates on weekdays because of the uncertainty. For the weekends, it is protests, as usual,” said Scarlett, a Hongkonger and a Politics and Public Administration graduate from the University of Hong Kong.

The self-organizing, leaderless pro-democracy movement actively relies on social media. On Telegram there are channels in Chinese and English with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, in which anonymous administrators share wide-ranging designs with calendars of future protests, details of police brutality cases, infographics and memes.

There is also at least one group that functions as a press room, where admins publish
press releases and facilitate interviews to the media.

Scarlett normally obtains designs from those channels and subsequently prints them. With the objective of combatting disinformation, she and Fiona fact-check the content of the posters that they will place on the streets, while facing the danger of being fined. Fiona mentioned that they could put up around 100 of these posters.
“I don’t want to spread not confirmed news,” said Fiona, a journalist in Hong Kong involved in producing social media content for a media outlet. “My role is sometimes choosing the posters, choosing the ones I know are true and informative. I rarely choose some sentimental posters, in fact, more about the fact-telling.” Meanwhile, Scarlett said she compares the content of the signs to the versions of traditional media reports.

Scarlett and Fiona are 24 and support the pro-democracy movement, which has become increasingly renowned for being fueled by younger generations. They requested not to reveal their identities due to privacy and security reasons.

The motive behind informing by themselves, said Fiona, is because not all of the media covers details profoundly. “Some kind of posters are actually serving the purpose of cheering people up, which most of the media cannot achieve this goal, because news is neutral and emotionless.”

Other social media networks also reinforce the movement, such as LIHKG, Hong Kong’s Reddit-like platform, where citizens also share calendars of upcoming protests and discuss what they consider to be injustices or abuses of power from police officers.

AirDrop is also being used to share information related to the movement, Fiona mentioned, and social networks like Facebook are used to analyze information, said Lydia, another Hongkonger.

But in social media, fake news and misleading information disseminate. Just about 30 kilometers north of Hong Kong, where the mainland Chinese territory lies, censorship and disinformation abound.

Both sides of the actual movement, the pro-democracy and pro-China, face false information, said Bruce Lui, a Senior Lecturer of the Journalism Department at Hong Kong Baptist University.

But first, how does Hong Kong operate and why are there protests?

Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom that was returned to China in 1997 under the condition that it would maintain a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years, which the Basic Law guarantees, operating with a “one country, two systems” principle. Such autonomy expires in 2047, and for now, the region has an independent judicial power, as well as freedom of expression, of press, of publication and open Internet. 

hong kong-verificado-protestas
Foto: Scarlett /Hong Kong

In June 2019, millions of people — according to organizers’ figures — went out to the streets and protested against a deeply unpopular bill that would have allowed extraditions of Hongkongers to mainland China. They feared that political activists and government dissidents would be put on trial on the main territory, where it is often criticized that the judicial branch is subject to the Chinese Communist Party. 

The bill was officially withdrawn in October, but the movement remains, along with the “five demands, not one less” chant. Besides pushing for the full withdrawal of the extradition bill, demonstrators enlisted a series of demands: Dropping the charges against arrested protesters, retracting the term “riot” as a label to the protests, an independent investigation into abuses of power and alleged police brutality, and implementation of universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Miriam Hernández, a Mexican from Monterrey that lived in Hong Kong from 2012 to 2018, and who is now a professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, explained that China has gradually tried to take control of the territory with specific actions, like the placing of pro-Beijing politicians, but with the extradition bill, such action was done “strikingly.”

Disinformation and censorship

There was an example of disinformation amongst protesters, said Fiona: After a taxi driver ran over a group of demonstrators in October, an image that showed an X-ray of a woman’s broken legs circulated. However, the Facebook page @kauyim, which does fact-checking, reported that the photograph had been published in April.

According to Lui, from HKBU, while monitoring Chinese media regularly, it can be noticed that they only report violence generated by anti-government protesters. “They don’t report what’s behind the problem, what’s the root cause of the bill, the peaceful demonstration, the brutality of the police.”

A DDoS attack — Distributed Denial of Service — occurred on LIHKG in late August. In spite of difficulty in fully proving where it came from, Lui mentioned that when similar attacks have surfaced in the past, an Internet analysis sustained they are, sometimes, from a national level, something an ordinary hacker could not achieve.

“[In China] it is a very usual practice for them to use fake news, and then bad-mouth to defame someone to serve the purpose of the government. It is not the mean they use, it is the objective,” said Lui, who was a China correspondent with 14 years of experience. 

The flow of information in the main territory is very different from the West’s. Social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, even international media outlets, are blocked. They possess their own versions of social media, like Weibo — similar to Twitter or Facebook — and WeChat — similar to Whatsapp.

However, these networks are controlled by a vigilance system, informed Lui, in which arrests can follow after publishing information that compromises the Chinese territory or goes against the Communist Party, like for those who published posts supporting the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

In another interview, a woman identified as Ms. Wong, a Hongkonger currently living in the United States and who said was a researcher and college lecturer on Hong Kong Studies, recalled writing a congratulatory post in 2010 to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, a writer and human rights activist — now deceased — that was imprisoned in China.

But her post disappeared, she said, due to a “violation” of the terms of use. “After that I never used Weibo,” said Ms. Wong.

In Hong Kong, there are no indications that the protests will come to a halt. To this day, demonstrators keep fighting for the five demands, while Telegram forums share on a daily basis designs and graphics encouraging future protests.

Foto: Ian Cavazos / Monterrey
Foto: Ian Cavazos / Monterrey

D.H., a Hongkonger studying abroad in Monterrey, Mexico, still fears arrest upon his return for participating in the June protests. He also requested to conceal his name for security reasons. Being more than 13,000 kilometers away from home, separated by the Pacific Ocean, he describes feeling “useless” for not being able to sufficiently support the movement.

“We cannot lose this war, the war which is happening now. Because once we lose it, we will lose everything. We will be the next Tibet. We will be the next Xinjiang.”


*Most of the people interviewed for this story asked to only use their first names or a combination of initials to protect their privacy and safety.
ian-cavazos-hong kongIan Cavazos (@IanCavazos) is a 21-year-old freelance journalist in Monterrey, Mexico. He is passionate about investigative and international journalism. Ian has lived in three countries and loves to hear stories from all over the world.
Do you have a story to tell him or a proposal? Reach him at [email protected]



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