Hong Kong and trending misinformation

Twitter announced in a blog post that they have removed over 900 fake accounts spreading misinformation about the protests in Hong Kong:

This disclosure consists of 936 accounts originating from within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Overall, these accounts 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. Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.

I like that Twitter is being proactive and transparent about this. It’s especially remarkable that they notified a competitor, Facebook, about similar fake accounts on Facebook’s platform.

Unfortunately there’s a deeper problem here. It’s not just the fake accounts and misinformation, but the way that Twitter’s design can be exploited. It is too easy to piggyback on trending hashtags to gain exposure.

Maciej Cegłowski of Pinboard called attention to the promoted tweets:

Every day I go out and see stuff with my own eyes, and then I go to report it on Twitter and see promoted tweets saying the opposite of what I saw. Twitter is taking money from Chinese propaganda outfits and running these promoted tweets against the top Hong Kong protest hashtags

I wrote about this in 2018 when introducing Micro.blog’s emoji feature:

Hashtags and Twitter trends go together. They can be a powerful way to organize people and topics together across followers. But they can also be gamed, with troublemakers using popular hashtags to hijack your search results for their own promotion or unrelated ranting.

We’ve expanded search and discovery in Micro.blog slowly for this reason. While Micro.blog is certainly too small to attract the attention of state-run propaganda, there has been spam going through Micro.blog that no one else sees. I’m convinced that limited search, no trends, and active curation are the right foundation so we don’t end up with a design that creates problems when Micro.blog does get bigger.

Manton Reece @manton