China has recently been accused of using a VPN to spread disinformation on social media. Most of the posts have apparently been made in response to the Hong Kong protests taking place in the Summer of 2019. While it may not seem strange that another superpower is trying to influence public opinion on social media, it is curious that Chinese operatives used a VPN to accomplish their goals.
China, Hong Kong, and VPN
Hong Kong has been rocked by ongoing protests that began in the first half of 2019. The protesters are making a statement against Beijing’s efforts to crack down on extradition policies in Hong Kong. China technically rules Hong Kong as a special administrative region, but there are many differences between Hong Kong and China. Namely, residents of Hong Kong enjoy freedom from an authoritarian regime.
That changed when the government announced it would extradite individuals who have sought refuge in Hong Kong to avoid punishment for crimes committed in China. This did not go over well with student activists in Hong Kong that have long called for democracy.
Images from the protests, mostly unflattering to the Chinese government, made their way onto social media. Unlike in China, social media networks in Hong Kong can be accessed without a VPN. China blocks access to almost 140 popular websites which include Google and Facebook. The common belief is that the government wished to strictly control what is allowed to be posted on social media.
In Hong Kong the social networks were filled with images of one million protesters. While China was not in a position to prevent the access of social media, it appears to have adopted an old maxim: if you can’t beat them, join them.
Hypocrisy and Disinformation in China
At some point the Chinese government decided to mount a disinformation campaign using Facebook and Twitter. The only problem was accessing these networks since they are blocked by the Great Firewall of China. That was a small hurdle to overcome. The Chinese apparently used a VPN to evade the block and make it appear that the social media posts were coming from inside Hong Kong and other areas.
Twitter discovered 936 accounts that were created in the People’s Republic of China. These accounts were then used, according to The Verge to “undermine the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”
Facebook took a similar approach and suspended numerous fake accounts which are believed to have originated in China for the purposes of disinformation. All of these social media accounts are believed to have been accessed with VPNs. YouTube was also impacted. Some 200 YouTube accounts were suspended in the wake of the revelations.
The hypocrisy here is apparent. China has effectively banned the sale of VPNs in the country. This measure was taken specifically to prevent individuals in the country from accessing blocked websites. Yet, the country had no problem using VPN to spread its own disinformation on social media about the Hong Kong protests. Many feel compelled to call out the government for its hypocrisy, but that will have little impact. China is a superpower that demands authoritarian control of its citizens.
Why Does China Hate VPN?
The protests in Hong Kong and China’s reaction have cast a light on why the Chinese government takes such a strong stand against VPNs. The see the technology as a threat to their ability to control what the rest of the world sees, hears, or reads when it comes to things happening on the other side of the Great Wall.
VPNs in China serve a very important purpose. They are the method by which journalists and dissidents can get information out of the country. There are also Chinese citizens who are engaged in protests against government policies. If these people were discovered the price to pay would be high. They use a VPN to evade the blocks and also to protect their privacy to prevent being discovered.
Of course there are other reasons why someone in China might want to use a VPN. They might be a US citizen working in the country who wants to stay connected to friends and family with Facebook, Maybe someone that is traveling on a vacation would like to access the local news from their city.
China probably doesn’t like this either, but make no mistake. The country is far more concerned with people sending images outside of the country that portray China in an unflattering way. In Hong Kong there was a similar concern. China did not want images of protests to escape the region, especially if the Chinese government was compelled to use force against the protesters.
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