Twitter and Facebook under fire for ads criticizing Hong Kong protesters

Twitter said it'll no longer accept ads from state-controlled media outlets.

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Queenie Wong
3 min read

Twitter is also cracking down on fake accounts from China.

James Martin/CNET

Twitter and Facebook have landed in hot water for allowing Chinese state-run media outlets to run ads on their platforms that criticize pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. 

In response, Twitter said Monday that it'll no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media outlets because the company wants to "protect healthy discourse and open conversation." The company also said that it suspended 936 accounts from China that attempted to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including efforts to undermine the protests in Hong Kong. 

Facebook said that it pulled down five Facebook accounts, seven pages and three groups with ties to people linked to the Chinese government after it got a tip from Twitter. These users posted about political topics including the Hong Kong protests, but the social network said they were suspending the accounts, pages and groups for misleading others about their identity and purpose. In some of these Facebook posts, Hong Kong protesters were compared to cockroaches and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A Facebook spokesperson said the crackdown on fake accounts is not related to questions about ads critical of Hong Kong protesters. 

The moves by the social networks come amid criticism that the companies aren't doing enough to combat disinformation and propaganda on their platforms. 

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of peaceful activists took to the streets of Hong Kong for the 11th week of demonstrations, CNN reported. Protesters were initially rallying against a now-suspended bill by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed people arrested in Hong Kong to be transferred to and tried in mainland China. Since then, the protests have expanded to include calls for more democracy and government accountability, according to CNN. Protesters have clashed with police in Hong Kong, who have reportedly fired tear gas and beaten activists with batons, according to various media reports

Now some of the world's largest social networks are under fire for the role they're playing in these political protests. Facebook and Twitter are both blocked in China, but businesses and organizations can still run ads on these platforms. 

Maciej Ceglowski, developer of the social media bookmarking site Pinboard, called on Twitter over the weekend to stop selling ads to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. One promoted tweet from the news outlet stated that "the escalating violence in Hong Kong has taken a heavy toll on the social order" and that "all walks of life in Hong Kong called for a brake to be put on the blatant violence and for order to be restored." 

The Xinhua News Agency didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Twitter pointed to their blog posts about changes to their ads policy and the Chinese accounts the company removed for violating its rules against spam, fake accounts and other forms of "platform manipulation." The suspended accounts were a part of a larger network of 200,000 accounts that Twitter pulled down before they were "substantially active" on the platform. Many of these accounts used virtual private networks or unblocked Internet protocol addresses.

Chinese state-run media outlets were also using Facebook to display ads critical of Hong Kong protesters. One ad about the Hong Kong protests by Xinhua states that "calls are mounting for immediate actions to restore order," according to Facebook's ad library. Another ad says that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has voiced her support for the protesters, "should fly to Hong Kong to see what the true facts are." 

Facebook doesn't currently ban ads from state-owned media.

"We continue to look at our policies as they relate to state-owned media," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "We're also taking a closer look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our policies."

Originally published Aug. 19 at, 12:55 p.m. PT
Update 3:24 p.m. PT: Includes statement from Facebook.

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