Tycoon’s Facebook, Twitter Accounts Suspended

Property tycoon Guo Wengui has recently leveled accusations of corruption against top members of China’s political elite. His allegations have been met with vigorous counteraccusations in a coordinated media campaign, and an Interpol red notice seeking his arrest. Zheping Huang has summarized Guo’s background and claims at Quartz.

Guo has used Western to trumpet his accusations, but both his and accounts have suffered temporary suspensions over the past week. Both companies, particularly Facebook, have come under fire in the past for their apparent willingness to collude with Chinese authorities, but in Guo’s case Beijing or its sympathizers may have used the services’ abuse reporting systems to temporarily silence him, rather than approaching the firms directly. The New York Times’ Michael Forsythe reports on Wednesday’s Twitter suspension:

Mr. Guo’s account was apparently suspended for about four hours before it was restored after inquiries from members of the news media. Twitter normally suspends accounts if they are deemed to be sending out spam, if they appear to have been “hacked or compromised” or if they engage in “abusive behavior,” according to the company’s website.

Twitter considers the posting of private information, like identification numbers, without the consent of those involved to be abusive behavior. In recent days, Mr. Guo had posted two screenshots that contained the Chinese national identification numbers of several people. When his account was restored, those screenshots had been removed.

[…] “Some authoritarian governments [monitor] accounts of critics and opponents for apparent violations of the companies’ own terms of service, then flag them through the companies’ abuse-reporting channels,” [Rebecca] MacKinnon said in an email. [Source]

In addition to the missing screenshots, Guo’s account was initially stripped of all its roughly 100,000 followers, which returned after a short lag. Temporary reductions in follower count appear to be a normal side-effect of Twitter’s account restoration process, having also occurred after the accidental suspension of the company’s founder and CEO Jack Dorsey last November.

The NYT’s Paul Mozur had previously reported on the suspension of Guo’s Facebook account, which Guo portrayed as a sign “that the value of my various evidence is bigger than what I had imagined.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company’s automated systems had erroneously suspended Mr. Guo’s account and that once the company was able to investigate the error, it had restored the profile. The precise reason for the suspension would be difficult to determine, the spokeswoman said, adding that publicizing the reasons could allow others to manipulate the system.

[…] Some Chinese activists have complained about accounts being sporadically suspended on Facebook and other sites without explanation. In response to Mr. Guo’s post on Twitter, some users brought up a theory that China’s government uses a collection of foreign social media accounts to report accounts like Mr. Guo’s so they will be suspended.

The Facebook spokeswoman said the company does not remove content based simply on how many times it has been reported. [Source]

Following Guo’s Twitter suspension, cartoonist suggested that the approach relied less on the volume than the variety of reports. His own experience shows how Facebook’s long-controversial insistence on the use of real names makes users with pseudonyms, often for the sake of political protection, especially vulnerable to malicious reporting.

Facebook and Twitter are not subject to [China’s] network management, but they do have reporting mechanisms. Fifty centers have no alternative but to find various pretexts to report the account. If a few reports succeed, the targeted account will be frozen. The year before last, my first Facebook account was shut down like this, and my appeals were ineffective, because the people reporting me had caught onto Facebook’s rule about requiring the use of real names. So all I could do was acknowledge that I was out of luck, and re-register with my real name and a public page for my pen name. Sure enough, that was the end of it. [Chinese]

Meanwhile, Reuters’ Joseph Menn reports Facebook’s announcement of new efforts to counter governments’ “information operations” abroad. China is not mentioned, but coordinated postings politically sympathetic to Beijing have been observed on Western social media in the past.

Facebook Inc acknowledged on Thursday that it has become a battleground for governments seeking to manipulate public opinion in other countries and outlined new measures it is taking to combat what it calls “information operations” that go well beyond the phenomenon known as fake news.

In a report and summary of response plans on its website on Thursday, Facebook describes well-funded and subtle efforts by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals.

These initiatives go much further than posting fake news stories to include amplification – essentially widening the circulation of posts through a variety of means – carried out by government employees or paid professionals, often using fake accounts.

[…] Facebook said its security team would now fight information operations, which it regards as a more complex problem than traditional hackers and scammers, by suspending or deleting false accounts after identifying them with a combination of machine learning and intelligence agency-level analysis. [Source]