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A mob of men in white T-shirts attack protesters and passengers at Yuen Long MTR station. Photo: SCMP

Rumours and fake news shared online risk further polarising Hong Kong as protests continue, scholars warn

  • Misleading information has been shared online in recent days, sowing fear among public
  • Worries of further attacks following violence in Yuen Long fuelled by online posts may have caused businesses in several suburbs to close on Monday

The spread of rumours and fake news relating to the political crisis gripping Hong Kong has intensified in recent weeks, with academics warning it could fuel fears and deepen the split in the city triggered by the now-suspended extradition bill.

The latest rumours to prompt a denial by the Hong Kong government on Tuesday related to a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, which claimed the People’s Liberation Army had been deployed to guard the Beijing liaison office, which was vandalised by protesters on Sunday, the office of the Foreign Ministry, the Chief Executive’s Office and the Legislative Council.

The spread of rumours became even more rampant after the violent attacks at Yuen Long MTR station on Sunday, when a mob of armed men in white attacked passengers, including black-clad protesters who were on their way home after taking part in a march earlier that day.

The following day Yuen Long, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun turned into ghost towns, with many businesses closing early out of fears triggered by rumours there would be further attacks by rival gangs.

Cook caught up in Hong Kong station violence as he left work recalls ordeal

One photo which circulated online showed some men in Tsuen Wan wearing white T-shirts and helmets and warned of another attack in the area.

It was later confirmed the group had just been attending a construction industry safety training session at a learning centre.

“I saw the photo and believed what the post suggested,” Kathy Tai, an office worker living near Yuen Long, said.

The Chinese national coat of arms defaced by extradition bill protesters at the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Sai Ying Pun on Sunday. Photo: Edmond So

Tai also noted that another online photo showed a police station in Sha Tin shut, which was later denied by the force; it said the gate had been shut for months awaiting renovations but services had not been affected.

Coming protest, no faith in police lead to anxiety in Yuen Long

She was also puzzled by some audio clips circulating, including the recording of a self-proclaimed van driver who said he had been ordered to transport a vanful of weapons to Yuen Long.

“Those recordings sounded too fake to me, coming with no photos and no trace of proof at all,” Tai said.

Nonetheless, worrying about her personal safety, Tai decided not to take the MTR in the coming week, as she has to pass through Yuen Long to get home to Tin Shui Wai every day.

Shops on Castle Peak Road in Yuen Long closed on Monday after rumours of attacks spread a day after a mob attacked passengers at Yuen Long MTR station. Photo: Sam Tsang

Pan-democrat Lam Cheuk-ting, who was injured during Sunday’s violence, was depicted in an edited video on the pro-Beijing online media outlet HKGpao as “crazily provoking” the men in white before he was attacked.

Screengrab from a video showing pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting injured at Yuen Long MTR station on Sunday night. Photo: Facebook

In the video, Lam scolded the men before they rushed into the train, attacking him and other passengers.

But Lam later said the men were already attacking people at the station before he arrived and shouted at them, a version of events borne out by a video he himself posted.

How marauding gang struck fear into Yuen Long

Professor Clement So York-kee, of the school of journalism and communication at Chinese University, said the spread of rumours and fake news reflected the public’s desperate craving for the latest development.

Screengrab from an online post warning of another attack in Tsuen Wan with a photo showing groups of white-shirted men wearing helmets. The men were later shown to be construction workers attending a safety training course. Photo: Handout

“In such an uncertain social situation, some people might take the opportunity to spread rumours, which can go viral very quickly,” he said, calling on people to be conscious of the sources of any rumours or news.

Could deepening Hong Kong divisions lead to anarchy?

Dixon Sing Ming, a social science scholar, said misleading news from either side of the political divide would only intensify social polarisation.

“The trend is surely polarising, as both camps are very determined to win over public opinion,” he said, noting the impasse after the fallout of multiple protests.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fake news risks further polarising city, scholars warn