Investigation: Video of young men allegedly using illicit drugs has no connection to protests
A video clip showing young men clad in black hoodies smoking and carrying a packet of white powder in a toilet has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media platforms since November last year.
At the beginning of the video, the person filming the footage jokingly asks another teenage-looking man if he is taking crack cocaine. The clip has been used to support the claim that Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters are taking illicit drugs.
Annie Lab can confirm that the widely-shared video was shot months earlier, on or before June 30, 2019. The alleged illegal activity took place in a toilet in the Golden Plaza shopping mall in the Yuen Long district in Hong Kong, not in a university as some people indicated.
These facts invalidate some allegations associated with the video.
Claims and viewership
A Facebook user uploaded a version of this video on Nov. 11, 2019, with a description saying the teenagers were protesters using drugs before joining a demonstration and implied that the “bravery” and “brutality” of the protesters were due to the influence of illicit drugs.
The post has more than 80,000 views, received nearly 350 emoji reactions and was shared about 3,600 times. Another Facebook page reposted it the following day, garnering more than 6,000 shares. The video has since been viewed close to 250,000 times.
Columnist Cheng Ching wrote in the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Nov. 12, 2019, that the alleged drug use demonstrated “total disregard for humanity” by the protesters and their “loss of conscience.” Cheng also questioned whether someone was controlling the protesters through drugs.
The column was reposted on the same day on the internet forum Discuss.com.hk and was viewed more than 3,500 times.
Hong Kong lawmaker Ann Chiang shared the video on her Facebook page on Nov. 14, 2019, with a description in Chinese that reads: “Everyone will understand why some rioters are that insane after watching the video!”
The footage in Chiang’s post was viewed more than 100,000 times, shared some 1,600 times and received more than 1,800 emoji reactions. Fact-checking project Kau Yim commented on Chiang’s Facebook post that the video is not evidence of the teenagers being protesters.
On some occasions claims have been more specific. This tweet, for example, says the teenagers were protesters using drugs inside the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The tweet was posted on Nov. 22, 2019, a week after protesters and the police clashed inside the university with an exchange of tear gas and petrol bombs.
Finding the original video
The low-resolution video circulated in November 2019 was not the original but a screen recording of the original played on a mobile phone.
The first frame of the video shows it was uploaded by a user called “บ้า เด็กผู้ชาย” in Thai, which literally means “mad (บ้า ) boy (เด็กผู้ชาย),” but in the Thai language, adjectives are placed after the noun.
A Thai journalist who helped the investigation at this stage said it could possibly be translated as “mad or like a boy” which is an unusual Facebook profile name and suggests that the user may not speak the language.
Recognizing the Thai letters in the frame made it possible to search for the username, which led to various Facebook pages and groups including “on9仔女同盟會,” a public group with some 220,000 members, where the original video was uploaded on June 30, 2019.
Where was it filmed?
The video shows a toilet with handrails and the washing basin next to the toilet bowl, indicating that it was filmed in an accessible toilet.
The first clue was the sign attached to the blue door at 44 seconds into the video. The logo at the sign’s top-right corner looked like the one used by the Sino Group, a property developer based in Hong Kong
The Sino Group runs many shopping malls, hotels and residential complexes in the city, all of which have toilets accessible by the public. Annie Lab searched through images and catalogs of accessible toilets in the buildings owned by the Sino Group. We managed to narrow down the potential location to the Golden Plaza shopping mall in Yuen Long.
We also discovered that one of the comments on the original video mentioned that the location might be the same shopping mall.
A planning permission application of the building (archived here) describes the Golden Plaza as a 15-storey complex with a mall on the ground floor and a billiard center on the 14th. The other floors are car parks.
Of all the toilets in the mall, only the toilet by the Shui Che Kwun Lane exit on the ground floor matches the design in the video, according to the floor plans Buildings Department’s BRAVO database.
Our site visit confirms that the toilet in the video is the one in the Golden Plaza.
The sign in the video matches the door signage. The ceiling light, barricade tape on the floor, placement of handrails, rubbish bin, emergency buttons, and other identifiable features of the place match exactly.
Who are the men in the video? Are they protesters?
The video features five men and the voice of the person filming it. Further investigation revealed some of their names: one appears to be an underage teenager currently going to a public secondary school and another claims to be a local university student — if their multiple social media profiles, some of which use pseudonyms, are accurate.
Annie Lab also looked into some of their communications on social media platforms and chat apps, which indicate they belong to a network of people who claim to have been using drugs. It also appears there was a dispute over the debts incurred for “buying cocaine” among them.
Still, we could not verify if they were using illicit drugs in the video, or if they have a history of buying illicit drugs, although their public and private online conversations suggest they may have.
Given the incriminating nature and sensitivity of the matter, we decided not to publish their identities in this article.
But the claims suggesting the video was filmed in a university toilet during clashes between protesters and riot police are false.
It is also misleading to link the black outfit to the Hong Kong protests, given that some of them are not wearing black in the video, which was uploaded on June 30, 2019.
By June 30, there had not been protests against the extradition bill in Yuen Long or anywhere in the New Territories or Kowloon. Up to that point, all protests took place on Hong Kong Island; therefore, the men in the video are unlikely to have participated in a protest immediately after taking drugs.
Also, this video does not show in any way that the “violent” behaviors by the protesters are influenced by illegal narcotics. There is nothing in the video to suggest the connection.
Annie Lab cannot be sure whether the men in the video ever participated in the protests.