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Twitter becomes stage for China protests despite ban by Beijing

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Twitter is banned in China, but it is proving a critical platform for getting videos and images of protests occurring across the nation out to the rest of the world.

China’s robust internet censors have sprung into action to scrub domestic social media of photos and video streams showing demonstrations against harsh Covid restrictions, spurring citizens to circumvent the nation’s Great Firewall.

Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, but people in the country are able to access it using virtual private networks, or VPNs, which disguise their locations. They can then send material via the platform’s messaging system to a handful of widely followed Twitter users, who in turn broadcast it globally.

Dozens of students and faculty demonstrate against strict anti-virus measures in China, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Protests in China, which were the largest and most wide spread in the nation in decades, include (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds / AP Images)

One Twitter user who lives outside China and goes by the name of Li Laoshi, or Teacher Li, said he has been receiving more than a dozen messages per second with protest material at some points since public unrest erupted—the same number he used to get a day—so that he could repost them publicly.

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“My daily routine is: wake up, post online, and feed my cat,” he said. The goal of the account, created in May 2020, is to record events that are subject to censorship in China, his profile states. It had more than 759,000 followers as of Wednesday, more than triple the number before protests began, according to social-media analytics site Social Blade.

Amid the protests, some search terms related to the protests have been flooded with pornography and other spam from what appear to be bot accounts, based on the high frequency of their postings and low follower counts, among other factors. Searches on Twitter in simplified Chinese in recent days for the names of large Chinese cities where protests occurred returned thousands of tweets containing advertisements for sexual services or meaningless content such as time stamps.

In this photo taken on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, a protester reacts as he is arrested by policemen during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China. Authorities eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas but affirmed China’s severe “zero- COVID” strategy (AP Photo / AP Images)

Twitter also faced demands to reinstate at least two Twitter users who were posting content from the protests in recent days. The account owners said Twitter suspended their accounts citing violations of its rules against platform manipulation and spam. Both said they were wrongly banned and other Twitter users jumped to their defense. The accounts were later restored.

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Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment.

How Twitter handles such issues as China experiences its most widespread public dissent in decades will be an early test for the platform’s new owner, Elon Musk, who has pledged to allow largely unfettered free speech on the platform and to tackle the problem of bots. Mr. Musk’s Tesla Inc. relies heavily on China to manufacture its cars and as a sales market.

In this photo taken on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China. Authorities eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas but affirmed China’s severe “zero- COVID” strategy Monday a (Associated Press / AP Images)

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been used in years past as tools of the opposition in insurrections against regimes that control the flow of information. Protesters used Facebook to communicate during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, while Twitter allowed Iranian protesters to alert the rest of the world about demonstrations there in 2009. More recently, activists whose street protests precipitated the military overthrow of Sudan’s longtime leader relied on social media in 2019 to spread the word.

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Twitter has grown into a propaganda battleground for China in recent years as Beijing seeks to strengthen its global image and influence. Beijing has promoted its narratives on Twitter through a growing network of diplomatic and state-media accounts, and jailed dozens of people who use Twitter and other foreign platforms to allegedly disrupt public order and attack party rule.

Chinese authorities could pressure Twitter to address the content pertaining to the protests or try to hack accounts to stop it from further sharing information, said Patrick Poon, a human-rights activist and visiting scholar at Japan’s Meiji University who analyzes free speech.

Chinese President

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen at the end of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress on a giant screen a commercial district of Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province on Sunday, Oct 23, 2022. China’s economic growth accelerated (Chinatopix via AP / AP Newsroom)

“It’s definitely a test for Elon Musk and Twitter on how it will protect its users from hacking by authoritarian regimes,” Mr. Poon said.

China’s State Council Information Office and the Cyberspace Administration of China didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Even though most people post on Twitter under pseudonyms, Chinese authorities have kept close tabs on those critical of the government on the platform. They have at times arrested or detained users over their activities on Twitter.

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The rise of spam on protest-related content “points to this being an intentional attack to throw up informational chaff and reduce external visibility into protests in China,” Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory who was until 2018 Facebook’s chief security officer, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

“Looks like we might have the first major failure to stop gov interference in the Musk era,” he wrote.

Twitter has seen a wave of departures among its staff who moderate content, try to root out inflammatory material such as hate speech and defend against propaganda campaigns, with some analysts saying the company could be less well equipped to deal with attacks on accounts sharing material.

Chinese state-backed information operations have long taken place on Twitter but have been growing, analysts say.

Mr. Musk has complained for years about Twitter’s ability to measure and manage bots, the automated accounts on the platform that often produce spam.

Asked by a user on Twitter on Wednesday whether he was making progress removing bots generally on the platform, Mr. Musk said the company was, adding: “You should see some improvement by tomorrow.”

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Vickie Wang, a freelance writer and stand-up comedian in Taipei who had been retweeting videos and photos of protests, along with images of cats, to her roughly 500 followers, said her account was suspended Wednesday.

Twitter said in a message to her that the platform can’t be used “in a manner intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.”

“I’ve read through the entire page about spam and platform manipulation and I’ve done none of those things,” said Ms. Wang. A review of her most recent activity over 24 hours showed she had mostly retweeted others in about a dozen tweets.

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Another Twitter user reported her account was also suspended for the same reason, saying she didn’t know what she had done to trigger the ban.

Twitter didn’t respond to questions about the suspensions. Both Ms. Wang’s and the other user’s accounts were reinstated Wednesday shortly after The Wall Street Journal inquired about them.

—Liyan Qi and Liza Lin contributed to this article.

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