Bots and messages coordinated through protest forum LIHKG swamped Hong Kong’s landmark climate consultation with calls to axe low-carbon Chinese electricity – and while one bot attack was thwarted by the Council for Sustainable Development (CSD), protestors successfully delivered over 73,000 messages calling for energy independence from China.
Hundreds of forum posts on LIHKG had called for a mass response to the city’s first major public consultation into climate options from June to September last year, with detailed instructions and submission templates. Many of the forum posts included links to Telegram group noelectricityfromchina, which today has just 24 members and appears inactive. Group members did not respond to requests for comment.
CSD said it successfully deleted just 489 suspicious form submissions, all coming from the same IP address within 15 seconds and containing just the words “testing” in the relevant fields.
But analysis of the final results of the consultation shows the orchestrated campaign had a significant impact on the results.
“There were considerable views from the respondents expressing resistance to a very specific form of regional cooperation, that is, importing low-carbon energy from the mainland, due to anti-Mainland feelings at that time and concerns about the cost and safety of nuclear power generation in the Mainland,” says a spokeswoman for the Environment Bureau.
While most questions in the survey, including questions on lifestyle, waste and transport had just a few thousand responses at most, the question on electricity from China attracted over 73,000 responses, almost 100% of them negative.
So while 1,525 public views expressed support for reducing waste, 738 views supported local wind power and 684 views supported more “bike friendly” infrastructure in the city, these views were dwarfed by 73,764 views protesting “regional cooperation”.
While CSD officials said regional cooperation could mean any country or region, not just mainland China, and that zero-carbon energy could be the form of, for example, hydrogen, the only sources of zero-carbon electricity available to Hong Kong would be from the mainland.
In fact, local power producer CLP owns 25% of Shenzhen’s 2GW Daya Bay nuclear power plant, which already sends around 70-80% of its power across the border to Hong Kong under agreements that last until 2034.
While a huge number rejected the idea of electricity imports, just 177 views expressed safety concerns against Mainland nuclear power.
Asked whether the anti-Mainland consultation response would have diminished other views when formulating decarbonisation strategies for the city, ENB said it took all views seriously and that the social scientists behind the consultation “adopted the practice that topics with at least 30 comments, no matter 1,000 or 50,000, have been highlighted with typical relevant quotes in the report.”
CSD said the number of responses was a record for a Hong Kong public consultation and said the delay of the final report was partly due to this unexpected flood of responses. It also blamed the suspension of face-to-face meetings under Covid-19 for the delay.
An intelligence source who wished to remain anonymous says creating bots to fill out government consultation forms and petitions such as at change.org is technically very simple, as these sites rarely use any kind of user verification tools such as Captcha. Government officials did not respond to questions on potential bot attacks of public consultations.