Twitter grapples with Chinese spam obscuring news of protests

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SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter’s radically reduced anti-propaganda team struggled on Sunday with a deluge of nuisance content in China that researchers say was designed to reduce news flow about stunning widespread protests against coronavirus restrictions.

Numerous Chinese-language accounts, some of which had been inactive for months or years, sprang to life early Sunday and began spamming the service with links to escort services and other adult offerings in addition to place names.

The result: For hours, anyone who searched for messages from those cities and used the Chinese names for the locations would see pages and pages of useless tweets instead of information about the bold protests as they escalated with calls for Communist Party leaders to shut down. to act.

According to a recently departed Twitter employee, this is not the first time suspected government accounts have used the technique. But in the past it was used to discredit a single account or a small group by mentioning them in the escort ads.

“This is a known issue that our team had to deal with manually, aside from automations we put in place,” said the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation for revealing internal processes.

Mass layoffs and layoffs have reduced Twitter’s total workforce from about 7,500 to about 2,000, estimated surviving employees. Some groups, including those dealing with human rights issues, security issues and deceptive foreign influence operations, have been reduced to a handful of people or no personnel at all.

Sunday’s campaign was “another exhibition where there are now even bigger gaps to fill,” the ex-employee said. “All Chinese influence operations and analysts at Twitter have all resigned.”

The campaign was noticed by researchers from Stanford University and elsewhere. Alex Stamos, director of Stanford Internet Observatory, said his team is working to determine how widespread and effective it is.

A current Twitter employee told an outside researcher that by noon the company was aware of the issue and was working to fix it.

By the end of Sunday, news and images of the protests emerged in searches for posts in towns where rallies were held.

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

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