Twitter users find porn after searching about COVID protests in China

As nationwide protests against China’s strict zero-COVID policy escalate, Chinese bots are spamming Twitter with pornographic content, making it difficult for users to search for information on major Chinese cities.

Over the weekend, thousands of protestors took to the streets to decry the nation’s COVID-19 restrictions in more than a dozen cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. Citizens in university campuses and business districts have voiced their anger and called for an end to all lockdowns, with some demanding President Xi Jinping’s resignation.

The protests were ignited after a fire erupted at an apartment complex in Urumqi, Xinjiang, killing 10 people on Nov. 24. Residents blamed the government’s strict zero-COVID policy and its lockdown measures for the slow response of firefighters.

In Shanghai, citizens gathered on Nov. 26 to hold a candlelight vigil for the Urumqi victims. Residents held up blank sheets of white paper devoid of slogans to mourn the loss of the victims.

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In China, white is a common funeral color. It is also understood as an expression of anger by millions who have suffered under the country’s pandemic restrictions.

In the past decade, Xi has used his power to censor and crush dissent and to expand surveillance. The blank sheets quickly became a symbol of defiance, with hundreds of protesters chanting along to demand an end to the COVID restrictions.

“The white paper represents everything we want to say but cannot say,” Johnny, a 26-year-old protester, told Reuters. “I came here to pay respects to the victims of the fire. I really hope we can see an end to all of these COVID measures. We want to live a normal life again. We want to have dignity.”

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“People have a common message,” researcher Xiao Qiang at the University of California, Berkeley told The New York Times. “They know what they want to express, and authorities know too, so people don’t need to say anything. If you hold a blank sheet, then everyone knows what you mean.”

Tensions rose in Shanghai as police turned to physical force in detaining several people. On Sunday, BBC claimed that one of their journalists was beaten and detained for several hours.

In an attempt to suppress information and footage of the demonstrations, Chinese bot accounts are flooding social media with advertisements of explicit adult content when users search for cities like Shanghai and Beijing using Chinese script.

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“Twitter is being flooded with spam posts that make it harder to discover content about the protests breaking out across China,” Bloomberg reporter Rebecca Choong Wilkins wrote on Twitter. “The posts, many of which are sexually explicit, use hashtags referring to Shanghai and other Chinese cities.

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“Search for Beijing/Shanghai/other cities in Chinese on Twitter and you'll mostly see ads for escorts/porn/gambling, drowning out legitimate search results,” Air-Moving Device tweeted. “Data analysis in this thread suggests that there has been a *significant* uptick in these spam tweets.”

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Although social media services like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are blocked by Beijing’s Internet censors in Mainland China, some Chinese users are able to access the platforms via VPNs.

The pornographic explosion comes as Twitter’s staff has seen an overall drop from roughly 7,500 to 2,000 employees following Elon Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of the platform. The bot spams indicate the “first major failure” of Musk’s Twitter to stop government interference, according to Alex Stamos, a director at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Last week, thousands of workers gathered at the Zhengzhou factory in China to protest poor pay and unsanitary working conditions at Foxconn, the largest contract assembler of smartphones for Apple.

The protests also come amid frustrations over COVID-19 restrictions that have confined millions of people to their homes and forced employees to live at their workplaces.

 

Featured Image via Reuters