Twitter is blocked in China, but its state news agency is buying promoted tweets to portray Hong Kong protestors as violent

Twitter is being criticized for running promoted tweets by China’s largest state news agency that paint pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong as violent, even though the rallies, including one that drew an estimated 1.7 million people this weekend, have been described as mostly peaceful by international media.

Promoted tweets from China Xinhua News, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, were spotted and shared by the Twitter account of Pinboard, the bookmarking service founded by Maciej Ceglowski, and other users. The demonstrations began in March to protest a now-suspended extradition bill, but have grown to encompass other demands including the release of imprisoned protestors, inquiries into police conduct, the resignation of current Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam and a more democratic process for electing Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive. While China Xinhua News has repeatedly described demonstrators as violent, international observers have criticized the Hong Kong police’s use of excessive force against peaceful protestors, including incidents documented in footage verified by Amnesty International. The irony of China Xinhua News’ tweets is that they let the Chinese Communist Party disseminate its version of events to a worldwide audience even though Twitter is officially banned in China (along with other U.S. social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat). The Chinese government has also recently begun to keep a closer eye on citizens who use VPNs to access blocked services. For example, the Washington Post reported in January that even though there are only an estimated 10 million Chinese citizens on Twitter, its role as a platform for critics of the Chinese government means users are under increased scrutiny. In June, Twitter was accused of censoring critics of the Chinese government after numerous Chinese-language user accounts were removed days before the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The company said that the accounts had been removed by error and, despite speculation, “were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities.” It is unknown how much China Xinhua News has spent on promoted tweets or where they are being targeted. Twitter has been contacted for comment.

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