The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter grapples with Chinese spam obscuring news of protests

For hours, links to adult content overwhelmed other posts from cities where dramatic rallies escalated

Onlookers stand by the road during a protest in Beijing on Monday. (Bloomberg News)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter’s radically reduced anti-propaganda team grappled on Sunday with a flood of nuisance content in China that researchers said was aimed at reducing the flow of news about stunning widespread protests against coronavirus restrictions.

Numerous Chinese-language accounts, some dormant for months or years, came to life early Sunday and started spamming the service with links to escort services and other adult offerings alongside city names.

The result: For hours, anyone searching for posts from those cities and using the Chinese names for the locations would see pages and pages of useless tweets instead of information about the daring protests as they escalated to include calls for Communist Party leaders to resign.

Protests against China’s “zero covid” policy spread to cities around the country on Nov. 27. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

It is not the first time that suspected government-connected accounts have used the technique, according to a recently departed Twitter employee. But in the past, it was used to discredit a single account or a small group by naming them in the escort ads.

“This is a known problem that our team was dealing with manually, aside from automations we put in place,” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution for disclosing internal processes.

In mass layoffs and resignations, Twitter’s overall staff has been slashed from about 7,500 to roughly 2,000, surviving employees estimated. Some groups, including those dealing with human rights issues, safety concerns and deceptive foreign influence operations, have been reduced to a handful of people or no staff at all.

Sunday’s campaign was “another exhibit where there are now even larger holes to fill,” the ex-employee said. “All the China influence operations and analysts at Twitter all resigned.”

The campaign was spotted by researchers at Stanford University and elsewhere. Stanford Internet Observatory Director Alex Stamos said his team is working to determine how widespread and effective it is.

A current Twitter employee told an outside researcher that the company was aware of the problem by midday and was working to resolve it.

By late Sunday, news and images of the protests were showing up in searches for posts in cities where rallies were being held.

“Fifty percent porn, 50 percent protests,” said one U.S. government contractor and China expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. “Once I got 3 to 4 scrolls into the feed” to see posts from earlier in the day, it was “all porn.”