China posts overwhelming amounts of pornography on Twitter to obscure news on protests

‘Chinese bots are flooding Twitter with escort ads’

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 28 November 2022 09:50 GMT
Related video: Anti-lockdown protesters in China chant ‘Down with Xi Jinping!’

Twitter was flooded for hours on Sunday with a torrent of adult content, which researchers say was an attempt to obscure news about widespread protests across China.

The spam attack is an attempt to stop people from finding updates on protests against the nation’s strict ‘zero Covid’ lockdown policy, experts say.

In numerous cities across China, including the populous Shangai and Beijing, protesters poured into the streets over the weekend with unprecedented demonstrations, the likes of which have not been witnessed in the country since the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Tiananmen Square.

However, users on Twitter looking for posts from those Chinese cities on the microblogging platform over the weekend were bombarded with pages of spam tweets instead of useful information about the protests.

“Chinese bots are flooding Twitter with *escort ads*, possibly to make it more difficult for Chinese users to access information about the mass protests,” Mengyu Dong, a tech and censorship analyst, tweeted.

Researchers flagged that some accounts, dormant for years on the platform, sprang to life and started tweeting following the protests.

“Sadly, if a Chinese person decides to come to Twitter to find out what happened in China last night, these nsfw posts shared by bots are likely the first to show up in their search results,” Ms Dong said.

Twitter reportedly struggled to contain the torrent of adult content spam across the platform as company-wide layoffs which cut the workforce by more than half, drastically reduced its anti-propaganda team.

“This is a known problem that our team was dealing with manually, aside from automations we put in place,” a former Twitter employee told The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity.

In the layoffs earlier this month, Twitter slashed its entire workforce from 7,500 to roughly 2,000, including the company’s entire human rights and machine learning ethics teams.

Company staff as well as outsourced contract workers working on the platform’s safety concerns and deceptive foreign influence operations were reduced to no staff or a handful of people.

“All the China influence operations and analysts at Twitter all resigned,” the former employee reportedly said.

The protests across the cities were focused on the draconian pandemic lockdowns in China – the “zero COVID” program – which would enter its fourth year of keeping people under virtual house arrest.

Some protesters also called for the downfall of China’s president Xi Jinping and of the Communist Party that has ruled the country for 73 years.

In Shanghai, the police also beat and handcuffed a BBC journalist filming the protests.

“The BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering the protests in Shanghai,” the BBC said.

“We have had no official explanation or apology from the Chinese authorities, beyond a claim by the officials who later released him that they had arrested him for his own good in case he caught Covid from the crowd,” the news organisation added.

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