Published on Aug 11, 2021
How ‘fake news’ on the Hong Kong protests reached our shores
Focussing on the 2019-2020 anti-government protests in Hong Kong, this is the first media investigation in Malaysia to map how international online disinformation campaigns made its way to our shores and spread within local online communities.
From 2019 to 2020, Hong Kong was gripped by a series of mass anti-government protests that brought the financial hub to a standstill. The protests were triggered by fears that a controversial new bill at the time – which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China – could impact Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and the ‘One country, Two systems’ arrangement.
In the months that followed the first rally, as peaceful marches swelled in size and escalated into violent confrontations between protesters and police, a parallel information war began playing out between anti-protest and pro-Hong Kong factions in cyberspace.
Unlike the protests themselves which were largely contained within Hong Kong, this information war soon became a disinformation race that involved both China’s state media and anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces, and which eventually spread to different countries including Malaysia.
In an eight-month-long investigation, we sought to trace the origins of false information on the protests which have triggered heated disputes among Malaysians both online and off.
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The Chinese version of Global Times (环球时报), a news outlet under the CCP, published an article on Nov 12, 2019 with the headline “Save the children! After rioters intimidated police’s kids and attacked a school bus, we talked to mothers in Hong Kong”.
The article claimed Hong Kong police had confirmed during a press conference a day before that protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails in front of a school bus.
It posted two photographs showing two different fires allegedly caused by Molotov cocktails thrown by the protesters. However, the article did not specifically state that the buses were the targets of the attacks. No details were provided for the photographs. The article also did not provide the full names or photographs of any of the interviewees.
When the same article was published on the Global Times’ English site later that same day, several pieces of key information were modified to assert that protesters were targeting school kids. Among them, the headline was changed to “Petrified HK parents rush to send kids to safety as rioters wreak havoc on school”.
The first two summary points stated that “Rioters have targeted innocent schoolchildren in Hong Kong” and “They threw a Molotov cocktail at a school bus on Monday morning…”.
This story was quickly republished by various media in China including state-run broadcaster CGTN and Sina News. The latter republished it with a new title that read “Rioters intimidate children of police officers and attack school buses. Hong Kong mothers: please save the children” (暴徒恐吓警察子女袭击校车 香港妈妈：救救孩子).
The next day, three major Chinese dailies in Malaysia republished the article.
Daily A posted the story on its Facebook page, which had over 1.6 million likes then, with a sensational headline: “Children's lives hang by a thread! Molotov cocktails thrown in front of Hong Kong school bus” (小朋友命悬一线！香港校车前 被丢汽油弹). The caption accompanying the post read: “Even kids were not spared 😨😨 ” (小朋友也不放过 😨😨 ). The accompanying image was a composite of the photographs of the two fires.
After the post drew comments from readers questioning the sources and the images in the story, it was updated 83 minutes later. The new status read “Police press conference video inside” and the new image was a composite of the two earlier photos and a screenshot of a CGTN video featuring a Hong Kong police spokesperson.
The following day, Daily A posted the same story again but with an apology. It clarified that Hong Kong police had only confirmed the Molotov cocktail was burning in front of the school bus, and not that the bus had been attacked by protesters.
According to Crowdtangle, a social media analytics tool, the first Facebook post had attracted almost 4,000 interactions on the social media platform, including over 1,900 shares. The second post containing the apology only recorded a third of the previous post’s interactions with just 184 shares.
Although Daily A updated the first post in less than two hours and issued an apology the next day, the earlier misleading version reached more Malaysian audiences even beyond the daily’s Facebook followers, through other Facebook pages.
Data from Crowdtangle showed that the penanglang.com webpage featuring the story had been further shared 101 times on Facebook, including in a public group called Komuniti Kuantan which has over 200,000 members.
It was then posted on the daily’s Facebook page with the message: “Please protect the children” (请保护孩子~) along with the photograph of flames in front of the school bus. The message was later changed to "Chaotic" (乱象横生~).
This post was further shared 390 times including on a public group called "Ipoh Forum" (ipoh 怡保吹水站) that has over 300,000 members. Many shared the post with messages condemning the protesters.
Daily C also published the story with the initial title “Hong Kong protesters throw Molotov cocktail. Smash school bus and broke window” (港示威者掷汽油弹 砸校车打破车窗). The title was later modified.
In its Facebook post, Daily C used an image of the two fires with a photo caption: “Children’s school buses attacked. Angry parents: Is Hong Kong still safe?” (子女校车遭袭击 家长怒：在香港还安全吗？). The message accompanying the article read: “There were children on the bus...” (车上有小孩的啊...).
The post was updated hours later. The new title read “Hong Kong protesters throw Molotov cocktails. Police: It exploded in front of school bus” (港示威者掷汽油弹 警方：校车前燃烧). Image showing the fire near the school bus was removed and the message was updated to, “School buses are not safe too...” (校车也不安全了...).
The post was shared over 1,200 times but it is not sure how many of them were done before the changes. According to data from Crowdtangle, it was further shared to at least three public groups each with more than 10,000 members - "Kepong chit-chat station")(甲洞3817《吹水资讯站》), "Johor Bahru giant chit-chat station"(新山吹水霸王站) and "Reporters for the people"(全民记者 News & Media).
Several local Chinese dailies republished false information claiming that 23-year-old activist Joshua Wong and his colleagues met Julie Eadeh, a diplomat with the US Consulate General in Hong Kong, to “plot” against the Hong Kong government. The information came from CCP-controlled media and was spread further by local Facebook pages.
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In a short article with the headline “Suspected American hands behind Hong Kong chaos exposed” (美乱港幕后黑手疑曝光), Daily B claimed that unnamed netizens witnessed the meeting take place in the lobby of a Hong Kong hotel.
“According to the eyewitness, when they saw her ‘looking very American’, they acted very respectfully, as if they were meeting their big boss,” read the article, which was accompanied by a photo of the alleged meeting.
Daily B also posted the article on its Facebook page with the caption ”Hong Kong ‘separatists’ met with US embassy officials?!” (“港独”组织头目会美领馆人员？！). It was shared 144 times.
The article, only three-paragraph long, was attributed to ifeng.com, a news website under Phoenix New Media, a Hong Kong media conglomerate known for its pro-Beijing stance. The whole article, including the headline and photo, was published on ifeng.com a day before.
Further checks online revealed that ifeng.com had, in fact, republished the article from Chinanews.com, a news website under China state-owned news agency China News Service.
Chinanews.com itself had taken the story from Wen Wei Po (文汇报), a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the CCP.
The Chinese embassy in Malaysia also posted a video on its Facebook page featuring the same disinformation to support the conspiracy theory that Western powers were behind the anti-government demonstrations.
The two-minute video, entitled “The 10 chaos [sic] must be suppressed immediately”, featured the same photo of Wong meeting Eadeh to assert that the Hong Kong protests were “plotted, commanded and supported by Western powers”.
Radio Antarabangsa China is another official channel of the Chinese government that distributed this disinformation to Malaysian audiences, but in Bahasa Malaysia.
When asked about the disinformation coming from foreign media, news editors at local Chinese dailies responsible to filter and curate international news acknowledged the difficulties in providing accurate and balanced information, due to the current short news cycle and distance.
“There are blindspots. Sometimes we can’t find live reports from other media (on the same incident). This has caused difficulty for us because we need to be timely, so it is hard for us to verify a piece of information. After all, we are not there and we report based on what the local media there have reported,” said Oriental Daily News international news editor Liew Hwei Yin on the reports of the alleged school bus attack.
Other Chinese dailies declined to comment.
She knows very well the political inclination and bias of different foreign media. Hence the newsroom usually tries to compile information from different publications across the political spectrum.
“Our standard operation is news compilation. We know Apple Daily and Wen Wei Po are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. So we will combine the content from both publications and let the readers make their own judgement because we can’t force readers to accept a certain news angle,” explained Liew.
For the record, our investigation found that such new compilations were produced by Chinese dailies alongside with articles taken from pro-Beijing foreign media in whole without any editing. Most misinformation was found in the latter articles, as shown in the examples above.
Despite the difficulties faced by local Chinese media in verifying foreign news, media lecturer Oung Kang Wei (below) opined that they are still indirectly responsible for the spreading of foreign disinformation.
“Put it this way, they are not the culprit but they are accomplices. We can’t say they are innocent. After all, they are the ones who first laid down the rules recognising Wen Wei Po, Phoenix New Media (which operates ifeng.com), Ta Kung Pao (大公报), Xinhua News Agency, China Review News Agency, etc. as official and credible media.
“Local Chinese media do not create these news because they don’t have first-hand information, but they are the media responsible for reproducing and disseminating such news,” said Oung, who was previously also an international news editor at a local Chinese daily.
He pointed out that the political inclination of media owners and the conservative nature of local Chinese media also play a role in editorial direction.
“If the (specific media) owners are pro-Beijing business people, there would be more news favorable to China."
Malaysiakini also discovered that posts on the protests and the comments they attracted were overwhelmingly anti-protesters and pro-Beijing although both sides of the political divide - police and the protesters - resorted to excessive force and violence during the protests.
To note, this could be due to the fact that many Facebook posts we compiled were from local Chinese dailies which relied on information from mainstream Hong Kong and China media.
Some of the mainstream media in Hong Kong were clearly on the side of the establishment such as state-owned Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao while their counterparts in China are also state-owned mouthpieces like Global Times and CCTV.
On the other hand, anti-Beijing media such as the various publications under the Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times (大纪元时报) that have been churning out disinformation attacking the CCP during the protests were not considered as “official” information by Chinese Malaysian dailies.
It’s been reported that both sides of the Hong Kong protests generated and spread disinformation to sway public opinion, but the platforms used by protesters were very different from their rivals. The former, however, preferred instant messaging app Telegram that encrypted their messages and protected their identities. It’s hard for information circulated on such platforms to go beyond local users and reach foreign media. Our investigations, however, did not cover any messaging applications. Read more about our methodology at the bottom.
Our investigation also identified over a dozen popular public Facebook pages run by managers based in Malaysia that have been sharing misinformation on the protests. Videos, articles and news reports with sensational and exaggerated headlines were shared by both pro- and anti-protesters pages. Such content often attracted huge responses from users who shared the same view.
However, for the record, we found no evidence to indicate these pages were intentionally created to spread misinformation or propaganda for either party. Many of these pages have been active for several years and have built considerable following before the protests erupted.
They can be categorised into three groups - town/state-based communities such as “I’m from Penang” (我来自槟城), supporters of local political parties like “We Fully Support P.R- D.A.P 我们全力支持民行”, and news information sharing pages such as “FBT News 新闻最前线”.
Many of them formed networks of pages that amplified each other’s messages by simultaneously posting the same content and cross-sharing content. However, we could not confirm if the pages were managed by the same people as Facebook only reveals the location of the page managers but not their identities.
One of those networks identified in our investigation consists of three Facebook pages - “World news” (天下无所不闻), “I can’t find any reason to support BN” (我真的找不到支持国阵的理由) and ”还我公正，力挺安华！We Support Anwar！”. Combined, they have close to 60,000 likes.
These pages have cross-shared or published some 20 posts with identical content that were either pro-Beijing or anti-protesters. Most of those posts used exaggerated or sensational language containing false information.
For example, one post about Hong Kong police searching for protesters that vandalised the legislative council building had a message that read, “10 thugs have been convicted! Hong Kong begins citywide search! Foreign ministry denounces UK! Declare war if more interference!” (10名暴徒罪證已定！香港開始全城搜捕！外交部痛斥英國！再干涉就開戰！).
The post is no longer available on Facebook. The reasons for its removal was not made clear but it is available in our database that we have made public.
Almost all their common posts were articles or videos that had been published on Qiqu.live (screenshot above), a content farm targeting Chinese-speaking audiences. This pattern was also found in other networks of pages. They consistently posted articles and videos related to the protests from the same content farm.
According to The Reporter, an award-winning investigative journalism website based in Taiwan, a network of hundreds of content farms targeting Chinese-speaking audiences in Asia was run from Malaysia. The websites in this network include those with “Qiqu” in their domain names like Qiqu.live and Qiqu.pro and those with “KanWatch” like KanWatch.com, KanWatch.me and KanWatch.site.
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Another network of pages that distributed pro-Beijing disinformation were centered around “Being overseas” (人在海外) which has eight managers - six located in Malaysia and two in Singapore - and has close to 140,000 likes.
During the early stage of the protests, one post claimed protesters had devised several strategies including the use of Molotov cocktails, explosives and mini crossbows to charge the legislative council building on Jun 12, 2019, in order to stop the extradition bill from being passed.
A check online showed that the content came from an unverified report published by the CCP-controlled Wen Wei Po on the same day. It based the report on an alleged discussion in a protesters’ Telegram group.
Although the post received only 11 shares, the information was further amplified by other pages including "Grassroot fully support Chinese traitors to resign" (草根全力支持卖华贼下台) and "We fully support Pakatan Harapan" (我们全力支持希望联盟) that consistently shared posts from “Being overseas” during the protests.
Despite this, none of the mentioned weapons were seen during the protest on June 12. Instead, protesters hurled at police umbrellas, traffic cones, water bottles and bricks that they found at the spot. Police responded with pepper spray, tear gas, bean-bag rounds and rubber bullets.
Malaysiakini's investigation also identified Facebook pages that distributed pro-protesters misinformation although the number is much lower than those in the opposite camp. Most of them were set up as pro-Pakatan Harapan/Pakatan Rakyat pages. However, none of them were official Pakatan pages and there was no evidence found indicating any Pakatan leaders were behind them.
“Rakyat Rise to Change the Regime” (全民起義 改朝換代) was one of the most active and popular pro-protesters pages run by managers based in Malaysia.
It consistently provided disinformation to its 60,000 followers during the peak of the protests. This included content from foreign media, especially YouTube channels affiliated with Epoch Times, a multi-platform media network backed by the anti-Beijing spiritual movement Falun Gong.
Epoch Times Hong Kong, which has over 400,000 subscribers and was temporarily suspended by YouTube twice. The first was in early November 2020 during the US presidential election and the second was in January 2021, just before the inauguration of US President Joe Biden. YouTube did not reveal the reasons behind both suspensions.
Started in March 2019, Dayu Show quickly accumulated over 575,000 subscribers in just 20 months. The show’s only host, Lee Da Yu, was a broadcast journalist with NTDTV before joining the show.
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The video was published by the Epoch Times Hong Kong Youtube channel a few hours earlier.
Another video shared by “Rakyat Rise to Change the Regime” falsely claimed that female students arrested during the protests were raped by Hong Kong police.
The video was published a day before on Dayu Show. It has been viewed over one million times on the YouTube channel.
Although less influential, these two pages amplify their messages by regularly posting or cross-sharing identical misinformation about the protests.
The video they shared was published by Epoch Times Hong Kong.
As the most popular social media platform both globally and in Malaysia, Facebook reportedly has over 35,000 staff working on the safety and security of its platform, reviewing over two million pieces of content every day.
“We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate anywhere across our family of apps.
“Since 2017, we have found and removed over 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behaviour globally, including some in APAC. As part of our commitment to transparency, if we identify any coordinated inauthentic behaviour, we will take action and disclose it publicly in our monthly report,” a Facebook spokesperson told Malaysiakini.
However, a check on Facebook’s account removal announcements and monthly reports since 2018 found that none involved any Facebook accounts originating from Malaysia.
Although Facebook partners with over 80 independent third-party fact-checkers globally, working in over 60 languages, it only has one such partner in Malaysia — the international news agency AFP,which only publishes its fact-checking findings in English.
The top official representative of the China government in Malaysia, the Chinese embassy, was also found to be spreading disinformation through its official Facebook page.
Although the page only had a moderate following with around 22,000 followers when the protests started in June 2019, the number rose to over 51,000 in March 2020, a 130 percent growth in nine months, according to Crowdtangle data.
Serving as an official source of information, local media has been citing information posted on the embassy's Facebook page and treating them as official statements. Hence any information posted on the page has the potential to go beyond its followers and reach more Malaysian audiences through amplification by local media.
Most of the information posted on its Facebook page is about Chinese history, culture and the achievements of the Chinese government. However, we managed to identify at least two videos shared by the page with misleading or unverified conspiracy theories that the Hong Kong protests were funded and plotted by the West.
The embassy did not reply to our queries.
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The official Facebook page of the Chinese embassy in Malaysia shared a YouTube video in Chinese packed with conspiracy theories. The post received over 100 reactions and shared 37 times on Facebook.
Entitled “Deconstructing how the ‘color revolution’ by US destabilised a country in 12 steps and analysis of the Occupy Central Movement, Ukraine and Arab Spring” (解构美国如何‘颜色革命’12步搞乱一个国家，浅析占中事件乌克兰阿拉伯之春), the 26-minute video claims that the same modus operandi was repeated in the 2014 Hong Kong protests.
Although the embassy had described the video as an exposé by Hong Kong media, the video was actually uploaded to YouTube nearly three years ago by an unknown channel called “Ciao chef Lev” with only 199 subscribers.
It alleged that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US agency funded by the US Congress to promote democracy abroad, was funding and supporting the protesters to trigger a ‘colour revolution’ in Hong Kong similar to the uprising in Arab countries and Ukraine which were allegedly part of a global conspiracy by the Freemason organisation.
The video also alleged the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down in 2014 was a ‘false flag operation’ (military action that’s made to appear to have been carried out by a group that is not actually responsible) to provide an excuse for the US and Europe to impose economic sanctions against Russia.
The video, which has over one million views, is a sermon delivered by its leader Reverend Leung Yat-wah. The controversial church was called a cult by mainstream Christian churches in 2004 as it encouraged followers to drink hydrogen peroxide every day in order to cure a host of diseases.
The embassy Facebook page shared another YouTube video in English with the message “The riots in #HongKong clearly require orchestration, leadership and most importantly, money. So who is the force behind the scenes? It’s time to unveil the true nature of #NationalEndowmentforDemocracy (#NED) in this video.” The post was shared 205 times.
It propagated the conspiracy theory that the protests in Hong Kong, both in 2014 and 2019, were funded by the US through the NED. The video claimed that NED is an extension of the CIA with the purpose of destabilising rival countries.
The original video is published by Beijing Review, a state-owned English news magazine, on its YouTube channel with the title “US Fingerprints All Over Hong Kong Violence”.
Although pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong have been receiving funding from NED for quite some time, there's no clear evidence to prove such funding is used to fund the protests.
Malaysiakini’s investigation found that although the disinformation campaign was started by foreign forces with a clear agenda to influence public opinion both local and international, it was brought into Malaysian cyberspace mainly by local players driven by different goals.
Local Chinese language media was found to be passive “importers” of the news whose purpose was to provide coverage of the protests for local audiences. However, the lack of resources and skills in their newsrooms to filter, curate and fact-check the information before publishing them has led to the amplification and dissemination of largely pro-Beijing disinformation in Malaysia.
The problem was further aggravated by conventional news operations that preferred mainstream media content from China and Hong Kong – comprising mostly state-controlled and pro-establishment news organisations – and their long-term content-sharing partnership with these media.
On the other hand, this investigation identified local public Facebook pages that have been actively spreading foreign disinformation originating from China state media and other international anti-Beijing media.
These Facebook pages, both pro-Beijing and pro-protesters, were able to reach a wide audience not only due to the huge number of followers, but also through coordinated distribution with several pages functioning as a network.
Despite such huge influence, there was barely any oversight or action taken by social media platforms such as Facebook and local authorities on the practice. This could be due to the fact that the disinformation was mainly communicated in Chinese, which is not as widely monitored as English and Malay content here. Another reason could be that the content concerned a foreign issue with little, if any, direct impact on domestic affairs.
As global powers up their game in this information war, inaction by authorities and lack of awareness could see Malaysians further misled, polarised and even exploited. This vulnerability will expose the country to more disinformation operations that could one day have greater and more direct influence on local affairs and could cause greater harm.