Conspiracy Theories and OSINT HK

A longform Q&A about the information environment in Hong Kong

A few days ago Adam Ni asked me to write something for his new Neican project. I politely informed him that I was very busy, far behind in adding updates here and that it would be best to narrow down the scope by asking questions. He asked me about my new-ish project, OSINT HK, and it took me several days and seven pages to answer his seven questions. This seems to be a good place as any to share my full answers.

Are there a lot of rumors and untruth flying around?

Let's start by breaking this down into what I've seen with polling numbers. You've got about 10-15% hardcore support on the 'Blue Ribbon' pro-govt side and about 65-70% hardcore anti-police and anti-govt. I don't follow Team Blue propaganda too much because it makes Breitbart look sophisticated, to be honest. Team Blue keeps changing their story, but every version is essentially an exploration of the darkest depths of traitorous hedonism. 

It started as "CIA is supplying, training, and paying off protesters" before taking a weird exotic turn with "teenage girls are offering their bodies as rewards to the bravest' yungmo / brave' frontliners." A friend found my name-dropped in a 'tankie' YouTube video laying out the case that my neighbor was a Super Spy. As a 'doxxing' attempt, the information on both of us was widely inaccurate. But creepy. A variant of this is that surely it must be 'bad teachers' brainwashing or encouraging students to protest.

Anti-government ‘Team Yellow' took a much, much darker turn on August 31st. Let me just lay out what happened because the contexts exploded and fractal out from there. Getting past the MTR turnstiles before 8/31 was more-or-less a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card but on the night of 8/31 police crossed that physical and psychological barrier for the first time at the Prince Edward MTR Station. What followed was some of the most horrific videos of police brutality even up to now. 

They beat a young man so hard that he goes unconscious and starts foaming at the mouth (indicating a spinal injury, we were told). This is just the most accessible footage point in the entire station for media. Downstairs they're beating more people and pepper-spraying frightened couples holding each other while they scream. They're beating everyone. Suddenly, and unexpectedly for a world-reliable public transport service, they slam the gates shut and closed the MTR station. 

No one is brought to the nearly two dozen ambulances waiting outside. No one comes out of the station. Police say they used the MTR to transfer detainees and the wounded out to other stations. MTR refuses to release the CCTV footage of that night. FSD changed the number of victims (and their condition) several times in the next few hours. We still don't know the name of that beaten boy to know his current medical condition. All the answers and processes disappeared behind a 'black box' of governance. 

In the following days, two death notices were sent out at two schools saying that students had committed suicide (a routine practice to notify teachers and parents). This instantly set off a new and ever-expanding conspiracy theory that cops killed someone(s) that night and covered it up with 'fake' suicides. Social media and Telegram channels have been awash in gore pictures as almost every single suicide deemed 'suspicious' - which is to say every corpse HKPF finds and designates non-suspicious.

For a non-trivial number of people, half or more of these suicides are thought to be arrested protesters murdered by police after being taken into custody. Many believe hundreds - if not thousands - of protesters have been murdered. Rumors of detainee rapes and sexual assault have been circling for months (almost the same week we learned about San Uk Ling was used as a detention center), some of which are now confirmed-ish. They think cops are raping young women and disposing of their bodies in the sea or throwing them off rooftops:

  • A naked 15 y/o girl was found naked in the sea after going missing, and police deemed it 'non-suspicious.'

  • The body of a woman dressed exactly like a 'frontliner' was pulled out of the sea in one video. 

  • A 17 y/o girl fell into an estate courtyard topless with her jeans partly taken off. Also deemed 'unsuspicious.'

  • A body pulled out of the water in Tsuen Wan with arms in a rigor mortis position that looked like they had been handcuffed. Someone reported police dumping a body in the sea the night before it happened.

The second most prevalent conspiracy theory is that the PLA or PAP is already here - wearing HKPF uniforms. Attempts to catch them speaking Mandarin are either duds or taken out of context. We're also in the midst of a raging moral panic about the new Made in China tear gas being 'toxic.' That's long and complicated and our OSINT HK group is trying to recruit an expert so we can issue a statement that people will believe.

... why is that? 

For the average pro-government person, they see people doing things they can't understand and ascribe their own crass hedonistic/materialistic motivations to it. For the government, they latch on to any theory or explanation for the protests that does not start and stop "because the HKSAR government is criminally incompetent, HKPF is out of control terrorizing the city, and 85% of the city primarily blames the govt for the escalation of violence."

As many others have noted, this entire movement began with overtures of death — white clothing funeral for the 6/09 match, the 返送中 ‘funeral' pun, etc. There was a search for martyrs after 6/12 since no one had died from this yet - so they picked a guy who 'accidentally' fell hanging anti-ELAB signs (who also had a suicide note in his pocket). A giant shrine was built and became almost long as Pacific Place Mall on 6/16.

As to the rest: it's a mix of strong privacy laws, institutional opacity, and lack of trust. We don't know the names for most of the 4500 nearly that have been arrested and even getting numbers from police can be difficult. You need a name to look for death records, and the names of the 'floaters' and 'fallers' aren't publicly announced. There's no list of arrestees with suicide victims to look for matches. 

In the past two weeks, I think I've seen at least three arrested people beaten or manhandled so severely that the scene ends with cops dragging a limp body across the street (letting a head smash into a concrete barricade in one instance). We usually have no idea who these people are, what happened to them, or the extent of their injuries. Even for a natural skeptic like me, it’s difficult to believe there’s only been one confirmed death so far when they’re acting like this on the streets. What would they do if they accidentally killed someone? They even taunt about the allegations on the streets.

In private debates and discussions over this topic, my position for a while has been something like this: we see how police treat people on the streets with cameras rolling - it often stops only when they realize they're being filmed. I heard third hand of young men being raped while in detention before women started coming forward with accusations. Many detainees are getting injuries that doctors describe as post-arrest beatings or torture. It's becoming increasingly difficult to believe nobody has died in six months of this (except Alex Chow, whose death can't be linked directly to any police action). 

Do they hurt the movement, and if so, how?

In my opinion, pro-government misinformation and conspiracy theories have hurt them a lot. Today, for instance, James Palmer had a great piece on how Beijing completely misread the District Council elections so much so that state media hadn't even prepared stories for the landslide loss. Perhaps both sides, in fact, because failing to address the legitimacy crisis of the HKSAR government head-on. The only people who can stop all this, by which I mean Hong Kong's tiny political elite class, by reaching a political solution have their heads in the sand about why all of this has happened. They're always catching up to reality weeks or months late. Notice how the 'CIA backhands' conspiracy theory slowly dropped off? 

On the protesters' side, the widespread belief that HKPF is covering up murders and rape is 100% distilled agit-prop fuel. We've seen a transition from shouting 黑警 to adding 黑社会 after 7/21, and "殺人犯 / 強姦犯" combos (black/corrupt cops, Triads, murderers and rapists!). Many people I've spoken with about the ongoing Siege of PolyU think that it's fear of what happens during arrest (severe injuries) and what happens when they enter the 48-hour habeas corpus period than the possibility of serving ten years in prison for riot charges. It's increasingly common for people being arrested to shout their names at passers-by and cameras and add "I am not suicidal!" In other words, they're saying it won’t be suicide if their body is found floating in the sea or fallen off a balcony a few days later - it was murder.

Whether or not it 'hurts' the movement or not, I don't know, but the search for answers amidst institutional distrust and opacity has led to increasingly convoluted conspiracy theories. Even the most credible people also misinterpret things very quickly. For instance, on Sunday (election day), multiple pictures and videos were going around alleging to show election irregularities. One of the most viral was a woman handing "lai see" to people getting off a bus. It was a funeral, which our new group OSINT HK more-or-less verified and had the videos removed from Twitter.

It's often frustrating how difficult it is to get less alarmist material to spread vs. alarmist misreadings and even 'fake news'. Our OSINT HK Twitter account just shared the findings of a literature review on tear gas and dioxin that finds that this new Chinese-made tear gas can't produce anything more than trace dioxin. That might get ten retweets. Last night I got angry at people spreading a doctored video of a 'ghost train' taking arrestees to China and asked why they weren't focusing on real things like the 5-body high stampede that sent 31 people to the hospital last week.

How does one go about addressing this? 

For things like rumors/conspiracies of detainee deaths, there's virtually no leads for a journalist to work on to investigate any of these suspicious deaths. Not without names, anyways. We don't even really have a good count of how many people have been injured or how badly because protesters use the Secret Clinic network instead of the Hospital Authority, where HKPF has access to the HA patient record database. It is rumored that Blue Silk hospital employees (doctors, nurses, clerks) are reporting injuries to the police if they look like an injury seems protest-related.

The only real solution is in the Five Demands: an independent investigation of HKPF. Furthermore, any reform towards democratization and putting HKPF back under civilian control would make it possible for otherwise silent people to speak out. Recall Simon Cheng stayed silent for eight weeks and fled Hong Kong to tell his story of being kidnapped at Kowloon XRL, renditioned to Shenzhen, and tortured.

What is the role of OSINT? 

Let me start by describing the limitations of traditional journalism. Reporters are bound by sources of 'objective truth' that usually mean relying on official statements by the government or 'credible' people/orgs, easily verified facts, and eyewitness accounts. The government is outright lying about many things (like HKPF claiming no stampede happened), ‘hard’ facts can be challenging to establish in this environment, and our group has repeatedly found eyewitness accounts contradicted by video footage. 

We're in an environment where people are searching for truth and reliable information amid a deluge of information, but the 'official' information brokers are either untrusted (the HKSAR govt) or overwhelmed with the task of reconstructing events and making definitive conclusions. OSINT research is also a different skill set than what journalists are familiar with or trained in, nor is it entirely 'fact-checking' as I see practiced in Hong Kong right now.

Our OSINT HK project is about getting better resolutions or parameters of truth. Sometimes we can establish that something did or didn't happen, but more often, we're giving interpretive explanations after merging all the available evidence. Where journalists would repeat police statements that they weren't in the garage when Alex Chow fell, we can say: 

  • The CCTV footage doesn't look doctored to us

  • Tear gas was likely not a factor in his fall, though it was fired into the floor of the garage he was on when he fell minutes later.

  • Riot police were entering the ground floor about the time he fell but were nowhere near him

  • We don't see any evidence that he was stalked or pushed.

  • Many video clips purporting to be Alex Chow are not, in fact, him

  • He was likely a 'scout' (a cop spotter for a Telegram channel) and fell off rather than jumped over the wall

  • There's a plausible scenario wherein he was shot from outside and fell forward, and plus scout reports from Telegram channels helped us conclude police would have been in front of him outside the garage.

We were able to reach these conclusions by placing maps with all of the video footage we could find, timestamping footage and events, geolocating everything, and then syncing it all together for interpretation. Eyewitness accounts helped us look in the right places at the right time, but their sequence of events was pretty off. Our work over the past week focused on the stampedes last Tuesday. We discovered a second stampede and found that both press and opposition party politicians are getting the events in question wrong. There's a prevailing assumption that the 'three white vans' incident caused the stampede, but it was 90 minutes later somewhere else.

We're also agile enough to be able to quickly determine that the sounds & flashes seen last Tuesday were almost certainly flashbang grenades (rather than AR-15 gunfire, as most social media captioned video clips when they came out) long before media was able to say the same thing when HKPF announced it the next afternoon. By that point, however, we had already identified the model of flashbang used about six hours earlier.

The challenge for us right now is becoming recognized as an 'official' or reliable source of information. We have multiple journalists lurking in our Working Group channel, but none have cited us by name. The best way we're able to get our message out is having OSINT prodigy Nathan Ruser, who I would consider a co-founder of this project, tweet out his results. 

How does it empower individuals?

There's something about the 'Revolution of Our Times' that makes people want to help any way they can. This kind of work appeals to a nerdier and highly educated group of people who like establishing fact patterns and discovering new things. We have a larger OSINT HK Chat group where several people volunteer as translators for us. By working in private encrypted channels on Telegram, people are also able to participate anonymously - which is a ‘must’ for a lot of people in 2019.

There's also a crowdsourcing aspect of this work that makes our work faster and more efficient than I would have expected. There have been times when I've asked a speculative question I intend to look at myself, and two people answer before I even take a look. We were able to conclude, for instance, that a video allegedly showing police arresting people on a rooftop last week at 4 am in Tsim Sha Tsui was real after I asked: "do the clothes match?" Within a minute or two, an answer came back that not only did the clothes match, the spacing between the people matched. We were looking at a video leaked out of HKPF.

There's also very appealing flexibility and scalability of the model we stumbled upon. A group of about ten people wanted to monitor reports of District Council election irregularities. We set up a separate OSINT HK channel for them to work with, and they borrowed the same methods and tools they see us use in the primary Working Group (geolocation, time stamping, and centralizing data on a Trello board). They plan to write up their report in the next few days.

Why correcting the record matters in the long run?

I would dispute that we're correcting the record - we're often creating the record. So many things get lost in the 'memory hole' because so much is happening. Given the limitations of journalism and lack of an official investigation of the events happening in Hong Kong, we're filling in a niche role that I think some people have been looking for. In the short-term, I think my goal is calming some of the emerging moral panics happening in Hong Kong. 

We've been trying to recruit a tear gas and toxicology expert because everyone - everyone - is convinced that the new Chinese-made tear gas is producing dangerous toxins. The truth is a lot more complicated. Other panics are just outside our abilities that we'd like to push back on but can't due to a lack of documentary evidence. For instance, people want us to answer where the arrested people filmed outside PolyU being packed into MTR trains went. We're almost sure it wasn't China, but we'd likely be able to confirm it was Mong Kok East MTR station if we had a picture of them arriving.