Flood of Spam Drowns Out China Protest News on Twitter

Searches for Chinese cities were overwhelmed by porn, escort service ads
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 28, 2022 2:33 PM CST
Flood of Spam Drowns Out China Protest News on Twitter
Protesters hold up blank white papers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022.   (AP Photo/Kanis Leung)

On Twitter, news of the protests in China was obscured by a flood of spam on Sunday, much of it advertising escort services and pornography. TechCrunch calls it a "great wall of porn" that overwhelmed search results for Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities, especially when Chinese-language search terms were used. The spam is believed to be coming from government-linked accounts, most of which had been dormant for a long time, the Washington Post reports. Twitter is banned in China, but with news heavily censored on domestic platforms, many internet users in the country have been using VPNs to search for news on platforms like Twitter and Telegram.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, tweeted Monday that data "points to this being an intentional attack to throw up informational chaff and reduce external visibility into protests in China." Stamos says this appears to be the "first major failure" to stop government interference during Elon Musk's monthlong ownership of Twitter, the Guardian reports. Stamos estimates that more than 95% of tweets under the search term Beijing are from spam accounts, per the Verge.

Current and former Twitter employees speaking on condition of anonymity tell the Post that layoffs and resignations have gutted the teams that deal with this kind of attack. "This is a known problem that our team was dealing with manually, aside from automations we put in place," one former employee says. "All the China influence operations and analysts at Twitter all resigned." By late Sunday, the flood of spam had diminished enough for news of protests to show up in search results, the Post reports. "The amount of pro psy ops on Twitter is ridiculous! At least with new Verified they will pay $8 for the privilege haha," Musk tweeted Monday morning. (More China stories.)

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