Although Twitter and Facebook have taken steps to stop what they say is a Chinese state-backed misinformation campaign about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, similar content from suspicious accounts continues to proliferate widely, some of it co-opting Disney‘s new “Mulan“ to try to discredit the demonstrators.
At the same time, China‘s government-controlled media are praising the film and pushing back against calls for a boycott after its star, Crystal Yifei Liu, sparked a firestorm of controversy with her stated support for Hong Kong police. Official news outlets have publicly backed a #SupportMulan campaign, putting Disney in the awkward position of having its interests defended by the world‘s biggest authoritarian regime.
On Monday, Twitter said it had shuttered more than 200,000 accounts from China that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement.” The platform said it had found “reliable evidence” that the activity amounted to a “coordinated state-backed operation” of misinformation.
Facebook followed suit the same day, removing seven pages, three groups and five accounts originating in China and targeting Hong Kong. It said the offending parties were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and had links to individuals with ties to the Chinese government.
But comparable Chinese nationalist troll accounts continue to proliferate on Twitter, and “Mulan” star Liu has become their mascot and muse since she re-posted a meme last week from the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, that said: “I support the Hong Kong police,” along with a heart emoji. Her post on Weibo went up the day after the U.N. Human Rights office accused the police of “employing less-lethal weapons in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards.”
In even a cursory review of Twitter, Variety was able to identify scores of active accounts with the hallmarks of being state-backed bots all posting under the hashtag #SupportMulan. Using rhetoric that closely mirrors both Chinese state propaganda and other, similar accounts, they continue to spread misinformation about the Hong Kong demonstrations, accompanied by screenshots from Disney’s 1998 animated “Mulan,” posters for the new live-action version, and photos of Liu’s serene face, considered by most mainlanders to be an exemplar of Chinese beauty. By contrast, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong are ridiculed as “useless youths.”
In one typical example, an account created this month with only four followers posted an image that compared the Hong Kong protesters to ISIS terrorists, writing, “I see no difference #SupportMulan.” It parrots language used by the accounts that Facebook blocked on Monday, which also made ISIS comparisons.
The Twitter account in question has only 14 tweets, all of which appeared Saturday – the same day that the #SupportMulan hashtag was pushed out by the English-language channel of China’s state broadcaster CCTV, alongside a slogan in traditional Chinese characters: “Defend justice, support Mulan.”
“A malicious group of people with vested interests is making calls for boycotting a movie that celebrates the life and sacrifice of the brave woman,” the broadcaster said in English to kick off the Twitter campaign, which is clearly directed at an international audience, since Twitter is blocked in China itself. “She is an inspiration for girls worldwide….Show your support with #SupportMulan. Girls need Mulan! World [sic] needs Mulan!” The channel and its social media presence is strictly overseen by the ruling Communist Party.
The “malicious group” cited by the broadcaster refers to people offended by Liu’s statement on Weibo in support of the Hong Kong police’s crackdown on protesters. Many of those upset by Liu, who is a U.S. citizen, have rallied behind the #BoycottMulan hashtag.
Chinese state media have been quick to defend the actress – and the movie – amid the backlash from beyond China’s “Great Firewall” of internet censorship, which blocks Google, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and most major foreign media outlets. China has blocked all images and information about police brutality in Hong Kong and tried to characterize the protesters as violent and manipulated by hostile “foreign forces.”
“The vicious attack on Liu Yifei and the mindless call to boycott the ‘Mulan’ remake is nothing short of an attempt to silence certain voices and to drag Hong Kong into an abyss,” the People’s Daily wrote in an English-language statement posted to Twitter and Facebook. It did not mention the irony of the Communist Chinese government speaking up in defense of an American entertainment giant in the midst of the two countries’ trade war.
Disney has not responded to two separate requests from Variety for comment, nor made any public statement about the controversy so far.
Underlining the company’s tricky position, the Beijing-aligned Global Times said this week that Disney “simply cannot afford the consequence of disrespecting Chinese people’s feelings.” If Liu were to be removed from the film, the newspaper warned, Disney “will lose a potential 1.4 billion Chinese audience.”
Twitter said Monday that it would update its policies to stop allowing state media entities like the People’s Daily from paying to promote their content, which enabled their posts to appear in the feeds of users who didn’t actively follow them.
But suspicious accounts portraying Hong Kong protesters as “thugs” and “terrorists” who “just want to beat people under the pretext of democracy” continue to post on the platforms under the guise of being fans of Liu and “Mulan.” In their posts, Liu’s Mulan has become a symbol of China’s strength and willingness to defend its territorial claims and political system.
A commonly tweeted image zooms in on Disney’s new film poster, highlighting the Chinese character for “loyalty” engraved on Mulan’s sword, which is a combination of the characters for “heart” and “middle,” as in “Middle Kingdom.”
“Chinese heart,” the tweet says, implying Mulan’s patriotism through wordplay. “‘Useless youths,’ can you read that?” The phrase “useless youths” is a contemptuous slur used to put down young pro-democracy protesters as whiners who make no contributions.
Another cartoon portrays Mulan slicing the characters for “Hong Kong independence ‘useless youth’” in half with a long sword. It is headed with one of Liu’s only two spoken lines from the trailer: “It is my duty to fight.”