Chinese bots flood Twitter in attempt to obscure Covid protests

<span>Photograph: Jérôme Favre/EPA</span>
Photograph: Jérôme Favre/EPA

Twitter has been flooded with nuisance posts designed to obscure news of the coronavirus lockdown protests in China, in an apparent state-directed attempt to suppress footage of the demonstrations.

Chinese bot accounts – not operated by humans – are being used to flood the social networking service with adverts for sex workers, pornography and gambling when users search for a major city in the country, such as Shanghai or Beijing, using Chinese script.

Alex Stamos, director at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the Chinese activity indicated the “first major failure” to stop government interference under Twitter’s ownership by Elon Musk. He added that the actions appeared to be designed to limit international observation of the protests as access to Twitter is blocked inside China. However, Twitter can also be accessed within China via a virtual private network, which creates an encrypted connection between your device and a remote server, which can be located anywhere in the world.

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The apparent manipulation of Twitter by Chinese government sources, first reported by the Washington Post, follows widespread job cuts at Twitter, including among members of Twitter’s trust and safety team. Musk, who bought Twitter for $44bn (£36.4bn) last month, has fired half of the company’s 7,500 staff and a further 1,200 have reportedly resigned after he told remaining workers to accept being “hardcore” or leave.

In July, a whistleblower warned that Twitter was subject to regular interference from foreign states. Peiter Zatko, who was fired as head of security at the company in January, said he was aware of “multiple episodes” of Twitter being penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies or being complicit in a threat to democracies.

Last week, Tech Against Terrorism, a United Nations-backed non-profit organisation, warned that staff reductions at Twitter could “expose the platform to terrorist exploitation”. The organisation raised concerns about reinstating banned accounts accused of promoting hate and violence, as well as a new policy to demote hateful content rather than remove it entirely.

The warning of interference on Twitter came as dozens of protests broke out across Chinese cities over the weekend as frustrations with the government’s stringent Covid policies boiled over.

Groups of people numbering from single digits to about 1,000 have gathered for candlelit vigils and peaceful street protests. In some places, such as Wuhan, protesters pushed over pandemic barriers, and in Shanghai, demonstrators clashed with police. Holding candles, phone lights, and blank pieces of paper, [protesters have called for the end of lockdowns and frequent mass testing.

At other protests there have been demands for democracy and press freedom, and an end to online censorship. Chants echoing the slogans displayed by the Beijing bridge protester on the eve of last month’s Communist party congress political meeting have also been reported.