Facebook Admits Falsely Labeling Hong Kong Police Attack ‘Fake News’

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Hong Kong attack

Hong Kong attack

A brutal assault by Hong Kong police against protesters and bystanders at the Prince Edward station of Hong Kong’s MTR rail system on August 31, 2019, was one of the milestone events of the protest movement.

When supporters of the movement tried using Facebook’s Instagram platform to commemorate the seven-month anniversary of the assault last weekend, they discovered Facebook’s network of “fact-checkers” had falsely labeled genuine videos of the event as “fake news.” On Thursday, Facebook officially acknowledged the designation was incorrect and explained it was made by mistake.

The August 31 incident occurred when black-armored police swarmed into the Prince Edward station, ostensibly in pursuit of some demonstrators who broke the law. Police officials also said they were worried about demonstrators conducting sit-ins to shut down high-traffic rail stations near the Hong Kong International Airport, which was the scene of some massive demonstrations.

The police proceeded to use batons and pepper spray on nearly everyone in a train they boarded, including innocent bystanders and even children. Video of the assault became a viral sensation as protest leaders accused the police of “terrorism,” and some accused the authorities of covering up fatal injuries inflicted on civilians during the MTR assault.

Instagram users who tried to share these videos on Saturday, March 31, the seven-month anniversary of the assault, were surprised to see the footage marked with “false information” warnings that required users to click through fake news advisories before they could see the video. Complaints were quickly filed with Facebook management.

The Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on Thursday reported the fake news designation was a “mistake” that appears to have caused by one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers flagging the video because a group of users was passing it off as new video of Hong Kong police beating up suspected coronavirus patients:

An article published on Boom Live’s website on March 15 said the video had been shared with a false claim that it showed Chinese police “trying to nab suspected Covid-19 patients.” It cited several posts in Hindi as promoting the allegation.

Boom Live said in a tweet last Saturday that it was aware its fact check label had been incorrectly applied to videos of the attack: “We regret the inconvenience and are working to resolve this at the earliest.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told HKFP that the platform had reversed the tag: “If a fact-checker rates a photo or video as false or partly false, we will take action by labelling the content and filtering it from surfaces like Explore and hashtags.”

“In this case, we verified with the fact-checker and confirmed the video was labelled as false by mistake, and have since removed the interstitial.”

Two Instagram users complained to HKFP that they were not notified about the removal of the false information label on their posts.

There actually was a demonstration at the Prince Edward MTR station over the weekend and the coronavirus played a role since gatherings of more than four people have been banned in Hong Kong to halt the spread of the virus.

The August 31 Prince Edward video was apparently tagged as false information because some users presented it as video taken from a battle at the station on March 31, but in reality supporters of the protest movement gather at the Prince Edward station every month. Most of the March 31 visitors to the station peaceably left small tributes, but some were charged with violating social distancing rules or behaving in a disorderly manner and arrested. Lawyers for the detainees complained in turn that the police were violating social distancing protocols by putting their clients in jail with only very thin face masks for protection.

There have also been complaints that police are aggressively enforcing social distancing rules to harass protesters and shut down restaurants and other commercial establishments that support them. Police officials insisted they are applying the rules without political bias.

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