The toll of Twitter glitches on Chinese activists

The toll of Twitter glitches on Chinese activists

The toll of Twitter glitches on Chinese activists

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In November, Bao Pu, a veteran human rights activist visiting Beijing, posted videos on Twitter of university protests against China’s tough coronavirus lockdown orders. He gained over 10,000 subscribers over the next few weeks.


But friends and other activists were quick to tell her they had trouble finding her posts – and even her account – on Twitter.

“I was shocked,” said Mr Bao, who is based in Hong Kong. He said he feared Twitter was “putting a limit on the influence” he could have.

More than 30 prominent Chinese dissidents and activists have experienced similar visibility issues on Twitter in recent months, according to interviews with nine of them and screenshots of search results. The activists’ accounts did not appear after a search of their Twitter names, screenshots showed, although impostor accounts did appear. Three of the dissidents said their accounts were also suspended without warning and only later reinstated after multiple appeals.

What Chinese activists have encountered on Twitter is representative of the issues that have plagued the social media service since Elon Musk took over the company in October. As Mr. Musk reduced Twitter’s workforce to about 2,200 employees from 7,500, fewer people were available to oversee the company’s spam filters, handle user queries on accounts and troubleshoot issues. other issues, said six people with knowledge of the service.

This led to issues across the platform. In November, after a turbulent election in Brazil, hashtags falsely claiming that President Jair Bolsonaro had won the popular vote began to spread on Twitter. Racial slurs have swelled on the platform and images of child abuse remain rampant, despite Mr Musk pledging to clean the site of material. On Wednesday, users around the world reported that they could no longer post messages or send messages to each other, in what appeared to be new issues.

The problems also meant that major Chinese voices on Twitter were silenced at a crucial political moment, even as Mr Musk championed free speech. In November, protesters in dozens of Chinese cities opposed President Xi Jinping’s restrictive “zero Covid” policy, in some of the most widespread demonstrations in a generation.

The problems with the Chinese activists’ Twitter accounts were rooted in errors in the company’s automated systems, which are meant to filter spam and government disinformation campaigns, four people with knowledge of the service said.

These systems used to be regularly monitored, with errors regularly corrected by staff. But a team that cleaned up spam and countered influence operations and numbered about 50 people at its peak, about a third of them in Asia,has been reduced to single digits in recent layoffs and departures, two of the people said. The division chief for the Asia-Pacific region, whose responsibilities include Chinese activist accounts, was fired in January. Twitter’s resources dedicated to overseeing content moderation for Chinese language posts have been significantly reduced, the sources said.

So when some Twitter systems recently failed to tell the difference between a Chinese disinformation campaign and genuine accounts, it made it difficult to find some Chinese activist and dissident accounts, the people said.

“It’s hard to be a Twitter user these days,” said Jenn Takahashi, who runs the @bestofdyingtwit Twitter account, which has recorded the platform’s shortcomings since Mr Musk took the helm. She said she also struggled to see tweets from people she follows, with notifications “either delayed or sent twice”, and direct messages cluttered with “so much spam”.

Twitter and Mr. Musk did not respond to requests for comment. In December, Mr. Musk acknowledged the visibility restrictions imposed on certain users and announcement plans to improve Twitter’s transparency on the issue.

Moderating languages ​​other than English has been a particular challenge for American social media companies, which often don’t have enough staff in these areas and rely on imperfect machine translations, said researcher Gabriel Nicholas. at the Center for Democracy & Technology which studies the content. moderation and disinformation on social networks.

“If Twitter makes mistakes in Chinese-language Twitter, it’s very possible that they make mistakes in other languages,” he said.

Twitter has long been banned in China. But it has been a gathering place in recent years for Chinese dissidents, human rights activists and overseas Chinese communities seeking to debate topics censored on the mainland.

During the November protests, Twitter was inundated with Chinese-language spambots peddling pornography, gambling sites and escort services, a common Chinese government tactic to influence the kinds of information related to the China that the outside world sees. The company’s automated systems had been poorly maintained in recent months, allowing more spam and, at times, inadvertently restricting important Chinese accounts, four people said.

An account, “Teacher Li is Not Your Teacher,” which has more than 950,000 subscribers and has become a hub for videos related to the protests, was not appearing in search results when the New York Times searched for it early January.

A Canadian-based human rights activist, better known as Liu Shasha, said she used a third-party testing site in December to confirm that her Twitter account, along with those of a dozen ‘other Chinese activists, no longer appeared when users searched. for them on the social media service.

“I lost all faith in the Chinese division of Twitter,” she said.

According to results collected on Jan. 5 using Shadow Bird, a website that analyzes blocked accounts in Twitter search results, tweets from 30 accounts of Chinese dissidents did not appear in search results. (The website takes into account the evolution of search results based on the location of users.)

Some Chinese activists said their Twitter accounts had also been suspended in recent weeks without any explanation.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Wang Qingpeng, a Seattle-based human rights lawyer whose Twitter account was suspended Dec. 15. “My account is neither liberal nor conservative, I never write in English, and I only focus on human rights issues in China.

Ms Wang, whose tweets have mostly focused on awareness campaigns for Chinese political prisoners, said she appealed the suspension on Twitter but received no response. After 10 days, the call link stopped working. His account was reinstated on January 10 when Twitter sent him a E-mail saying that his account had been “mistakenly flagged as spam”.

Many of the 30 Chinese activist accounts that had visibility issues reappeared in search results after The Times contacted Twitter.

Mr. Musk’s changes to Twitter have also allowed potential state-backed influence campaigns to linger on the platform, said Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who studies misinformation about social media. social networks.

In January, Mr Linvill identified a series of tweets over a video denying the existence of Chinese police outposts in the United States and Europe. The tweets were shared by a swarm of bot-like accounts that were posted under such an absurdly long hashtag – #ThisispureslanderthatChinahasestablishedasecretpolicedepartmentinEngland – it was as if they were mocking the Twitter blackout in moderation, he said .

Prior to Mr. Musk’s takeover, Mr. Linvill said, such a botched China-focused campaign would likely not last a few days before being reported. This persisted for weeks.

“I am very worried,” he said. “The Chinese don’t send accounts by one or two, they send them by tens of thousands. It requires vigilance to stop and someone at the helm to take care of it.

Shen Liangqing, 60, a writer from China’s Anhui province who spent more than six years in prison for his political activism, said he loves speaking his mind on Twitter. But when his account was abruptly suspended in January, it reminded him of Chinese censorship, he said.

“If this platform blocks our accounts, we will lose a vehicle for our voice,” he said.

Kate Conger contributed reporting from San Francisco.


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