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Twitter Flexing its Muscles Against State Misinformation

Twitter first announced Monday, August 19, 2019, that is updating its policy on state media advertising. "Going forward," it said, "we will not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. Any affected accounts will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, just not our advertising products."

This policy is global and not targeted at any specific nation or nations, but does not "apply to taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters" (so organizations like the BBC -- were it to advertise -- should be okay). The organizations targeted are not banned from using Twitter to engage in organic conversation, but will not be allowed to advertise on the platform.

The immediate catalyst is almost certainly mainland China's propaganda campaign against the ongoing Hong Kong protest movement, but it will reduce the capacity of all foreign countries to manipulate public opinion ahead of elections. The longer-term catalyst will be to help protect the U.S. 2020 elections from foreign influence, whether that comes from China, Russia, Iran or elsewhere.

Advertising is, of course, only half the problem with foreign social media influence -- the rest comes from the tweets themselves. In a separate announcement on Monday, Twitter disclosed that it has suspended 936 accounts originating from within the People's Republic of China (PRC). "These accounts," said Twitter, "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."

Western democratic politicians will be hoping that Twitter can be just as proactive against foreign campaigns that might seek to sow discord ahead of future elections, especially the 2020 U.S. elections. Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 elections led to the indictment of 13 Russians.

Mueller's indictment says, "Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real U.S. persons to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants' means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016."

Such activity is in contravention of the five platform manipulation policies that Twitter uses to justify the suspension of the Chinese accounts: spam, coordinated activity, fake accounts, attributed activity, and ban evasion.

Facebook has followed Twitter with less extensive exclusions. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, also announced on Monday, "Today, we removed seven Pages, three Groups and five Facebook accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a small network that originated in China and focused on Hong Kong." Gleicher said that the individuals behind the campaign "frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong," and added, "Our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government."

The reach of social media in spreading misinformation can be seen in the number of separate accounts following one or more of the targeted Facebook pages (15,500), and the number of accounts joined to one or more of the targeted Facebook groups (2,200). The Facebook exclusions are, however, less proactive than those of Twitter since they followed an initial 'tip' from Twitter.

Meanwhile, China has objected -- although fairly mildly -- to the exclusions. Reuters reports that Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, "What is happening in Hong Kong, and what the truth is, people will naturally have their own judgment. Why is it that China's official media's presentation is surely negative or wrong?"

Related: Israel Seeks to Beat Election Cyber Bots 

Related: Misinformation Woes Could Multiply With 'Deepfake' Videos 

Related: WhatsApp Fights Fake News With Message Forwarding Limit 

Related: Fake News, Real Cybersecurity Risks 

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.