Twitter spam obscures China COVID policy protest news

The surge in bots comes after Twitter cut thousands of jobs.

Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

You won't have much success finding news of China's growing protests if you search the country's larger cities on Twitter. As TechCrunch reports, analysts have noticed a surge in bots peddling porn and gambling around these queries just as demonstrations flared in Beijing and other cities over the past three days in response to China's "zero-COVID" policies. The spam is making it harder to track the rallies, particularly for local activists who are using Twitter through a VPN to avoid Chinese government censorship of the protests on domestic social networks.

Twitter has effectively dissolved its communications team and hasn't officially commented on the matter. However, The Washington Post notes a Twitter employee told a researcher that the company is "working to resolve" the bot problem. It was easier to find word of the protests by late Sunday, but spam was still cluttering results. A former staffer told The Post that government-linked Twitter accounts have previously spammed en masse, but usually to attack individual accounts or small groups.

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The protests largely grew in the wake of a deadly fire at an apartment in Xinjiang province's capital city Urumqi. Critics blamed the Chinese government's strict COVID-19 lockdown measures for delaying firefighters and otherwise contributing to deaths. Working conditions at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, including concerns about inadequate COVID safety measures, also led to protests. The street action is rare in its intensity — some protesters have called on President Xi Jinping and other members of the Communist Party to resign. Those demands could easily lead to prison time in the country.

There are concerns that Elon Musk's aggressive job cuts may have exacerbated the situation. TechCrunch pointed out that the entrepreneur laid off Twitter's anti-propaganda team, leaving only the core moderation group. Where Twitter previously reacted quickly to China's attempts to undercut Hong Kong protests, it took days to begin curbing spam this time around. The company has resumed hiring, but it's not clear how much support the anti-misinformation unit will get.

The spike also challenges Musk's stance on bots. He tried to back out of the Twitter acquisition over claims the social network was hiding the true number of fake accounts. Spammers and other bogus users may now be more of a problem than they were before, if just because Twitter isn't as well-equipped to deal with the threat.