Through Hong Kong protests, social media has become a battleground

How protestors and the Chinese government alike are using online platforms to garner support

Social media has played an important role for both the Hong Kong protestors and the Chinese government throughout the Hong Kong protests.

For the last five months, Hong Kong has experienced some of the largest protests in its history. Now, the battle is no longer taking place solely in the streets of Hong Kong—it’s moving onto social media.

Demonstrations that began because of a controversial extradition bill have turned into a larger pro-democracy fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. Over the course of these conflicts, social media has played a more apparent role in the organization of communication within and beyond the two sides. Both demonstrators and the Chinese authorities have turned to social media to fight for the public’s support.

What are the protests about?

The Hong Kong protests began because of proposed amendments to an extradition bill which would allow police to detain or extradite a person arrested in Hong Kong to face trial in places Hong Kong doesn’t have extradition agreements with, like mainland China.

Critics see the proposed amendments as a way for the Chinese government to secure more control in Hong Kong.

These amendments would give the Chief Executive of Hong Kong—appointed by the Chinese government—the authority to decide if a suspected criminal should be extradited to another country, regardless of whether or not Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with that country.

Many feel the bill would undermine the autonomy of Hong Kong and the civil and humanitarian rights of its people. This bill has sparked a debate on the future of Hong Kong and its relationship with China.

Demonstrations challenging the bill started as early as March of 2019, but recently, they’ve become violent.

In June, a peaceful protest that drew roughly one million people made history as one of the biggest protests the region had ever seen. However, the stand-offs between protesters and the police quickly became physically aggressive.  

The role of social media for protesters

Many activists and demonstrators have remained anonymous to avoid arrest or retribution, using social media as a way to spread information and mobilize protesters.

In an effort to share Hong Kong’s situation and the increased police presence at protests, people in Hong Kong are sharing pictures and videos on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Videos of police brutality and pictures of injured protesters, like a widely circulated image of a bleeding female volunteer whose eye was injured by police, have helped demonstrators gain support.

Media outlets and people all over the world have joined them in helping to share news of the protester’s struggles to Western media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been used to share news, pictures and messages of support with hashtags like #FightForHongKong.

The role of social media for the Chinese government

The Chinese government has also been using social media as a tool to gain support, hoping instead to quash the demonstrations.

A combination of Chinese media platforms and fake propaganda accounts have been used to portray Hong Kong’s protests as riots caused by terrorists manipulated by radical Western forces. These media outlets have paid for ads on Facebook and Twitter and created fake accounts to influence public perception of the protests.

They’ve released pictures of military vehicles waiting on standby near the Hong Kong border for protesters and videos of demonstrators disturbing public transit.

This has sparked a movement supported by Chinese-state media outlets, Chinese celebrities, and everyday people denouncing the protesters and supporting the Hong Kong police. 

Misinformation, regulation and censoring

Amid increased pressure and scrutiny from the United States government, the European Council, and the international community, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have proactively begun to crack down on the spreading of misinformation by the Chinese government.

China criticized these actions, arguing their right to disseminate their point of view. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a 42-page outline of Beijing’s side of the story to Western media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.

When it comes to this social media battle, the Chinese authorities clearly have the upper hand, because social media content in mainland China is heavily regulated and censored. However, the use of social media campaigns has helped demonstrators spread news to the Western public and gain international support.

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