It’s distressing, if not surprising, that the Chinese government has allegedly been using social media to systematically dehumanize its own citizens in the same stark language that helped to fuel the Rwandan genocide. From the standpoint of social media, however, it’s emblematic of a wider problem in which platforms built to connect people have turned out to be potent tools for dividing them — not just in Hong Kong but also in the United States and around the world.
It also suggests that Facebook’s focus on “election interference” in the wake of 2016 has been too narrow. China’s campaign in Hong Kong makes it clear that public discourse can and will be gamed and distorted at any time, rendering irrelevant tactics like the “election war room” that Facebook has touted. Social media is a permanent war, and it’s one in which those on offense will always have the advantage over the defense.