A woman pays her respect to student Alex Chow on November 10 2019 in Hong Kong. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ANTHONY KWAN
A woman pays her respect to student Alex Chow on November 10 2019 in Hong Kong. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ANTHONY KWAN

Hong Kong — Soon after Alex Chow fell off the edge of a parking garage in Hong Kong, the allegations began spreading online.

Posts circulating in chat groups and on social media claimed the student was chased — and maybe even pushed — by police who were clearing protesters with tear gas nearby. Officers blocked an ambulance from reaching Chow, the posts alleged, delaying aid that could have saved his life.

Never mind that the claims were unsubstantiated, that police denied chasing Chow and that mainstream news outlets, including the South China Morning Post, described the circumstances of his fall as unclear. Hundreds of protesters seized on his November 8 death to engage in clashes with police that resulted in one person being shot on Monday.

As Hong Kong’s anti-government protests stretch into their 23rd week, the city is being inundated with online rumours, fake news and propaganda from both sides of the political divide. The polarising rhetoric is fueling distrust and violence, making it harder to resolve the crisis that has plunged Hong Kong into a recession and raised doubts about the city’s role as Asia’s premier financial hub.

“False information feeds itself to polarise public opinion,” said Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, who has spent the past seven years studying fake news. “I worry that it reaches a point where reconciliation of this divide is no longer possible.”

While the spread of disinformation has become a growing concern around the world, few places have been as affected in recent weeks as Hong Kong. In the past 24 hours alone, local authorities have denied rumors that they ordered police to fire on protesters at will; planned to cap cash withdrawals from banks; and would use emergency powers to shut financial markets and schools. After one of the most violent days since protests started in June, Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam urged citizens to “stay calm and see the facts.”

The proliferation of questionable information has coincided with waning confidence in once-trusted Hong Kong institutions

The city’s protests began with largely peaceful demonstrations against the Chinese government’s growing encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms. But as factions of the movement have grown more extreme, so too have the narratives spread by both sides.

While protest supporters often demonise the police and the government, pro-establishment camps tend to push narratives describing demonstrators as angry rioters, terrorists and “cockroaches” intent on destabilising the city and doing the bidding of foreign agents.

The proliferation of questionable information has coincided with waning confidence in once-trusted Hong Kong institutions. Nearly 80% of the public is dissatisfied with the government’s performance, up from 40% a year ago, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. Just a fifth of the city supports Lam, and only half the population is satisfied with the police force.

Hong Kong doesn’t have a fake news law, though secretary for security John Lee said earlier in November that “most of the laws in the real world are applicable to the online world”, such as publishing information that threatens public safety. In October, the city’s high court granted an injunction banning anyone from “disseminating, circulating, publishing or re-publishing” internet posts that incite violence on popular platforms, including Telegram and LIHKG.

Three quarters of the population get their news from the internet now, up from 48% in 2016, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. In August, a third of people rated the internet as their most trustworthy news source, surpassing TV for the first time since the institute began tracking the issue in 1993.

One disputed story that spread online in recent weeks involved the death of 15-year-old Chan Yin-lam, whose naked body was found last month floating in Victoria Harbour. Police have called her death an apparent suicide, but some protesters claim Hong Kong’s police, city officials or the Chinese government killed the girl for participating in protests. Several demonstrators responded by showing up at her school to smash glass doors and spread graffiti on the walls.

“In more peaceful times maybe I wouldn’t believe those claims that the police or government agents murdered her and are covering up the evidence,” said Ko, a first-year law student at the University of Hong Kong, who declined to give his last name, as he handed out protest fliers beside a shrine for Chan. “People are scared and don’t trust the authorities anymore. I’m not sure what to believe now.”

Spokespeople for the Hong Kong police and government denied the protesters’ allegations. China’s ministry of foreign affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Everyone is angry and not backing down,” said Paul Yip, director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, who said he hopes to get more clarity on the girl’s death. “Both sides are shouting into their own echo chambers, separated by a high wall that can’t be crossed over. It’s a dangerous point we’ve arrived at.”

Once unsubstantiated claims about the protests start spreading on social media, they’re often hard to contain. When violent clashes erupted between demonstrators and riot police at Hong Kong’s Prince Edward MTR station about three months ago, protesters alleged the altercation ended with fatalities after the police and the train’s operator evacuated the station and closed it off to media and first-aid providers.

One photo purporting to be a CT scan of the brain of a protester hit by a police baton actually came from a radiology Wiki page before it was doctored and posted on Telegram, garnering more than 120,000 views

The allegation was denied by police, but the protesters’ story line was amplified after activist Joshua Wong posted on Twitter that lives were sacrificed during the protests, a claim repeated by US House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Half the city still thinks people were beaten to death by police in the incident, according to a poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. The backlash has resulted in dozens of vandalised subway stations and a 10pm shutdown of train lines that acts as a de facto city curfew.

Both sides have stepped up online efforts to win the battle for public opinion. Hundreds of social media accounts linked to a Chinese government-backed information operation to undermine the protest movement were removed in August, according to Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet’s YouTube, which deleted the accounts. New accounts have since appeared pushing the same kinds of narratives, according to research from Astroscreen, a start-up that monitors social media manipulation.

Pro-government posts often spread photos, memes and videos propagating unsubstantiated rumours of US black hands funding the demonstrations and young female protesters acting as so-called comfort women for male counterparts. Their messages are sometimes amplified by Chinese state media and nationalistic netizen networks known as “fangirls”.

Anti-government protesters have used similar tactics as they seek to influence global perceptions of the movement. One protest Telegram channel with 25,000 subscribers assigns three to four tasks each day to keyboard warriors tasked with spreading content, hashtags or narratives on Twitter.

The channel has called for supporters to tweet against Activision Blizzard with the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard at least 30 times since the American video-game company punished a player for supporting the protests. Among more than 20,000 accounts that shared the #BoycottBlizzard hashtag, Astroscreen found a fifth were created between August and October. Similar tasks have targeted the US National Basketball Association (NBA) and basketball star Lebron James. Blizzard, the NBA and James didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Of course, many posts in support of the protest movement and against the city’s authorities are authentic, but there’s evidence that some have gone beyond digital activism and into the realm of misinformation, which researchers define as erroneous posts spread unintentionally. This differs from disinformation, which is false content spread with the specific intent to deceive, mislead or manipulate.

For example, a protest supporter in October posted a misleading image depicting Lam using her mobile device during the enthronement of the Japanese Emperor, a sign of disrespect. Within hours, the post was shared thousands of times, including by prominent activist Agnes Chow and local news outlet Apple Daily. It turned out the image was actually taken before the event started, according to a report from Annie Lab, a fact-checking project at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Lab has also found instances of disinformation. One photo purporting to be a CT scan of the brain of a protester hit by a police baton actually came from a radiology Wiki page before it was doctored and posted on Telegram, garnering more than 120,000 views. It was also published in a since-amended article by the South China Morning Post, according to Lab. The newspaper said it immediately removed the photo on discovering that it hadn’t been verified and has taken steps to ensure the incident isn’t repeated.

There’s little sign that such fact-checking efforts have had a meaningful impact on how Hong Kongers digest information related to the demonstrations. In the case of Chow, the student who fell to his death, many protesters continue to believe there’s a sinister explanation. “There are too many suspicious deaths since June,” said Joe, a bank employee and protester who declined to provide his surname. “We cannot let Chow die without justice.”

With Josie Wong, Dandan Li, Qian Ye and Matt Turner

Bloomberg