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Chinese Spam Accounts Block Covid Protest News With Porn Links on Twitter

Major cities around the country were locked down in huge protests over the weekend surrounding covid restrictions and the repressive Beijing regime.

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A crowd of people with cell phones surround a white pickup truck.
Protesters in Beijing gather in protest over China’s repressive covid policy.
Screenshot: Tom Mackenzie/Twitter

Over the weekend, you might not have seen the shocking footage coming out of several major Chinese cities, with thousands upon thousands of protesters taking to the streets chanting “stand up,” or “down with [Chinese president] Xi Jingping.” You may not have seen the rare display of cohesion from the protesters around the same issues of ongoing brutal covid-based lockdowns and government repression. You may also not have paid witness to the repressive and violent shows of force from police and other security forces.

(Warning, potentially graphic content)

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Why did you not see this? A big reason for Twitter users, at least, was because Chinese-language malicious actors managed to flood the blue bird app with porn links that included the names of the cities involved in the protests. The massively-reduced Twitter struggled to combat what appeared to be government-affiliated accounts’ efforts to dampen news surrounding the protests, according to a report that cites past and current Twitter employees.

According to The Washington Post, Chinese-language accounts started to flood the platform with links to porn services and escorts next to city names. For anybody actively looking for more news about the protests, this would flood their feeds with what amounted to porn ads. The accounts were reportedly dormant for months or years before being activated all at once, according to the Post.

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The campaign was confirmed by other China-centric reporters on Twitter who took screenshots of the efforts to screen information about the protests.

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One anonymous former Twitter employee told the Post that China-linked accounts have used this tactic before, and that a lot of the work to combat this spam was handled manually. Unfortunately, most of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Team as well somewhere around three fourths of the company were axed in the last month or so, which made responding to the threat harder than in the past. Though an unnamed current Twitter employee said the company identified the threat around midday Sunday, but it wasn’t until nearing the end of the day when people on Twitter started to see more protest footage through search results.

Gizmodo reached out to confirm Twitter’s response to the protest misdirection campaign, but the company no longer has much of a press team after CEO Elon Musk’s takeover. We don’t expect a response.

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Thousands of protesters already stormed the campuses of the Foxconn iPhone factory in Zhengzhou last week. Those workers were reportedly upset that the company apparently lied to contract workers about their pay and two-month timetable, as well as being forced to live in dormitories alongside covid-positive staff. Fortunately, many of those videos spread far and wide on social media despite China’s desperate attempts to curb public information about government protests.

But Twitter’s stalled response to major events was only more apparent this past weekend after freshly-uploaded video of the 2019 Christchurch shooting in New Zealand ended up on the platform. The graphic video showing the terrorist attack where 51 muslim worshippers were shot and murdered was only removed Saturday night going into Sunday after New Zealand’s government gave notice to Twitter. A spokesperson for the New Zealand prime minister told The Guardian that Twitter’s automatic reporting function didn’t flag the content when it was uploaded. 

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The protests were sparked in part by reports that 10 people living in a building under covid lockdown died in a fire last week. There are already reports from the likes of The New York Times of protesters being detained and beaten, so it behooves social platforms like Twitter to keep the lines of communication open, especially noting how much data China already has on its citizens. But with Twitter’s limited safety teams and automatic systems unable to handle fast-moving events from this weekend, it doesn’t spell much hope for the future.