Fact checking claims amidst Hong Kong’s rise of misinformation

I was overwhelmed by information whenever I hopped on the Internet at the height of the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests – news sites, social media and discussion boards were brimming with stories about police brutality, government corruption and, notably, reports of suspicious deaths among the populace, such as bodies washing ashore and falling from buildings.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the conversation shifted; conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus are circulating to this day. When vaccines rolled out in Hong Kong, rumors spread that some of them could cause death.

I spent hours scrolling through online forums with a lingering fear that these conspiracy theories were true. I found myself deep in a rabbit hole of fake news and misinformation, becoming more and more confused.

In recent years, Hong Kong experienced a spike in misinformation and disinformation produced by both pro-establishment and pro-democracy camps, stakeholders with various political ideologies, and even content farms hungry for clicks. Unverified information and rumors creep into citizens’ lives in all forms, revealing underlying social problems in the city.

According to Masato Kajimoto, an associate professor of practice at the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Centre, there is political or financial motivation behind the spread of misinformation.

Kajimoto noted that misinformation doesn’t cause the polarization of society —  polarization has to be there in the first place for misinformation to be effective. 

“If you look at some of the outspoken legislative councilors from establishment [pro-Beijing] camps, they have sizable [social media] followings… and they do make claims that are not based on facts,” said Kajimoto, adding that they do so to appeal to their supporters and vilify dissidents.

“For the pro-democracy side, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter if you are a pan-democrat politician or a student who is concerned about Hong Kong, you produce content that supports your political cause; sometimes they exaggerate information or make stuff up to say ‘we are the righteous ones.’ ”

Those spreading misinformation for financial gain include content farms and social media influencers. “They don’t really care about politics, but political content could get views and ad revenues if people flock to their websites,” said Kajimoto.

Content farms from mainland China may also produce fake news as a consequence to influence public opinion in Hong Kong, Kajimoto said. Although he doesn’t think the Chinese government is directly involved, there is a combination of financial and political motivation. 

More often than not, misinformation spreads organically; people believe fake stories and add their own opinions, then share it among their social circle, thus creating a new narrative.

Belief in false claims driven by emotion

Kayue Cheng, executive editor of Factcheck Lab, an independent, apolitical nonprofit organization that promotes professional fact-checking in media, said widespread rumors and unverified information in Hong Kong is a normal phenomenon given the recent social unrest, government crackdown, and COVID-19 pandemic that have rocked the city.

“Since our world has been going through a lot of changes, a lot of attention goes to these events,” he said. “With attention comes information overload, whether it is from the news or just spread by word of mouth.”

The spread of conspiracy theories is driven by emotion— it’s natural that people are often unable to understand the many sides of a complex situation, Cheng said. They lean towards conspiracy theory, which is a more straightforward explanation.

During the protests, rumors of police beating protesters to death, sexual violence carried out by police, and mysterious disappearances and suspicious deaths of Hong Kong citizens were widespread. These unverified or unsubstantiated claims spread because people fear the public will forget should it turn out to be true, Cheng said.

“Hypothetically speaking, it’s hard to verify or deny these narratives even if they are true because it’s commonly said that the government helps cover up these acts,” he said. “But it’s also difficult to obtain evidence from the government.” 

The role of fact-checking initiatives and its limitation

Hong Kong’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is extremely low, despite ample vaccine supply, because residents have a low level of trust in the government. This cultivated a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to thrive.

In March, Factcheck Lab published a report debunking a claim that medical personnel were to blame for deaths after people received the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. The rumors came from pro-establishment groups; when issues arose, they falsely blamed medical staff who have been critical of the government’s public health policy. 

Cheng noted that the claim was also debunked by the Centre for Health Protection, in which the government reminded citizens to contact medical staff if they have any concerns.

However, fact-checking reports don’t have the same reach as the trending false claim, which could be discouraging to journalists trying to get the truth to the public, said Kajimoto, the HKU professor.

Kajimoto is the founder of Annie Lab, a fact-checking project at HKU Journalism Centre, where students get to work in a newsroom environment to put fact-checking into practice. 

Nevertheless, he said the ultimate goal of fact-checking initiatives is to keep records of the truth. “If there is a lot of misinformation that people are believing, somebody has to have a record saying ‘that’s not true, here is what really happened’,” Kajimoto added. 

The decline in press freedom in Hong Kong also makes fact-checking more challenging.  

In April, Radio Television Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy was found guilty of improper searches of an online auto license plate database when investigating perpetrators of the 2019 Yuen Long attack. 

Kajimoto said this guilty ruling affects fact-checkers, as a common practice for journalists—going through a public vehicle registration database to investigate and verify information— is now deemed illegal.

In addition, the closure of Apple Daily eliminated the diversity of news sources for fact-checking work. Some of Factcheck Lab’s reports cited Apple Daily as a source and Cheng had to back up the articles before the publication ceased to operate. 

“For example, we relied on their court reporting to understand the court’s ruling,” said Cheng. “Losing such a big media organization gives us less sources when fact-checking and is definitely harmful to the information ecosystem in Hong Kong.”