Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was apparently the victim of a targeted social media campaign initiated by a state-affiliated Chinese "troll mob" after he tweeted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, the Wall Street Journal reported.
What's this about?
To recap, Morey posted a tweet expressing solidarity with Hong Kong protesters on Oct. 4. The tweet offended the Chinese government, which then severed ties with the Houston Rockets and threatened to further pull away from the NBA, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in China annually.
Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab discovered that, in the 12 hours following Morey's tweet, Morey's account was mentioned on Twitter more than 16,000 times by pro-Chinese government accounts. According to the analysis, they weren't bots, but rather actual people creating new accounts solely for the purpose of flooding Twitter with pro-Chinese comments.
"I'm not saying this is a state-affiliated operation," Clemson University researcher Darren Linvill said. "But I've only seen so many brand-new accounts used at one time when it was a state-affiliated operation."
Notifications were reportedly hitting Morey's phone at a rate of about two per second at the peak of the troll mob activity. Thousands of the posts referenced NMSL, a Chinese acronym that means "your mother is dead."
What was China trying to accomplish?
The organic response on Twitter surrounding Morey's tweet was overwhelmingly supportive of Hong Kong and critical of Beijing, so the troll mob effort appeared to be aiming at making the discussion seem more balanced on the issue than it really was. Twitter is banned in China, although some users can access it via a virtual private network, or VPN.
How did Twitter respond?
Some of the accounts involved in the troll mob were suspended or restricted by Twitter, although most of them are still active.
"Coordinated activity and other forms of platform manipulation have no place on our service," a Twitter spokesperson said. "We will take enforcement action on any accounts that are displaying these behaviors."
Morey has not tweeted since the controversy began.