February 21, 2024

In November, Pope, a veteran human rights activist who was visiting Beijing, tweeted a video of a university protesting China’s draconian coronavirus lockdown. In the next few weeks, he gained over 10,000 followers.

But friends and other activists were quick to tell him they were having trouble finding his posts — or even his account — on Twitter.

“I was shocked,” said Mr Bao, who now lives in Hong Kong. He said he was concerned that Twitter was “limiting” the influence he could have.

More than 30 prominent Chinese dissidents and activists have experienced similar visibility problems on Twitter in recent months, according to interviews with nine of them and screenshots of search results. The screenshots show that after searching for their Twitter names, the activist’s account did not come up, but the imposter’s account did. Three of the dissidents said their accounts were also suspended without warning and reinstated after multiple appeals.

The problems Chinese activists have encountered on Twitter are representative of issues that have plagued the social media service since Elon Musk took over the company in October. Six people familiar with the matter said that as Mr. Musk cut Twitter’s headcount from 7,500 to about 2,200, there were fewer staff to oversee the company’s spam filter, handle user account queries and troubleshoot other problems.

This caused problems for the entire platform. In November, the hashtag falsely claiming that President Jair Bolsonaro had won the popular vote began trending on Twitter following turbulent Brazilian elections. Racist comments are rampant on the platform, and child abuse images remain rampant, despite Mr. Musk’s pledge to clean up the site for such material. On Wednesday, users around the world reported that they could no longer post messages or message each other in what appears to be the new glitch.

The problems also meant that at a critical political moment, China’s leading voice on Twitter was silenced, despite Mr. Musk’s long-standing advocacy for free speech. In November, protesters in dozens of Chinese cities staged the most widespread demonstrations in a generation against President Xi Jinping’s restrictive “zero Covid” policy.

Problems facing Chinese activists’ Twitter accounts stem from faults in the company’s automated systems designed to filter spam and government disinformation campaigns, four people familiar with the matter said.

These systems used to be routinely monitored, with staff regularly addressing errors. But a team of about 50 people at its peak, about a third of them in Asia, was involved in spam and counter-influence operations. The latest layoffs and departures have reduced the company’s revenue to single digits, two of the people said. The head of the Asia-Pacific division responsible for the accounts of Chinese activists was fired in January. Resources dedicated to overseeing moderation of Chinese-language posts have been drastically reduced at Twitter, the people said.

So when some Twitter systems recently failed to distinguish between Chinese disinformation campaigns and real accounts, it made it difficult to find the accounts of some Chinese activists and dissidents, the people said.

“It’s tough being a Twitter user right now,” said Jenn Takahashi, who runs the Twitter account @bestofdyingtwit, which has documented the platform’s shortcomings since Musk took the helm. She said she also struggled to see tweets from people she followed, notifications were “either delayed or sent twice,” and direct messages became disorganized and filled with “too much spam.”

Twitter and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.In December, Mr. Musk admitted to certain users and Announce There are plans to increase Twitter’s transparency on the issue.

Moderation in languages ​​other than English has been a particular challenge for U.S. social media companies, which often don’t have enough staff in those areas and rely on imperfect machine translation, said Gabriel Nicholas, a fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology who studies content. moderation and disinformation.

“If Twitter made a mistake with Chinese Twitter, they probably made a mistake with other languages,” he said.

Twitter has long been banned in China. But in recent years it has been a gathering place for Chinese dissidents, human rights activists and overseas Chinese communities seeking to discuss topics censored on the mainland.

During the November protests, Twitter was flooded with Chinese-language spam bots peddling pornography, gambling sites and escort services, a common tactic by the Chinese government to influence the type of China-related information the outside world sees. The company’s automated systems have been poorly maintained in recent months, leading to an increase in spam and sometimes inadvertently restricting important Chinese accounts, according to four people familiar with the matter.

An account called “Ms. Li is not your teacher,” which has more than 950,000 followers and has become a hub for protest-related videos, did not appear in search results when The New York Times did a search in early January .

A human rights activist living in Canada, known by the name Liu Shasha, said she used Third-party testing site confirmed in December that her Twitter account, along with those of a dozen other Chinese activists, no longer appeared when users searched on the social media service.

“I’ve lost all faith in Twitter’s China division,” she said.

Based on the results collected on January 5, using shadow bird, a website that analyzes accounts blocked from Twitter search results, tweets from 30 Chinese dissident accounts did not appear in the search results. (The site takes into account how search results change based on the user’s location.)

Some Chinese activists said their Twitter accounts had also been deactivated in recent weeks without explanation.

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Qingpeng Wang, a Seattle-based human rights lawyer whose Twitter account was suspended on Dec. 15. “My account is neither liberal nor conservative. I never write in English. I only focus on human rights issues in China.”

Ms. Wang, whose tweets are largely about the campaign to raise awareness about Chinese political prisoners, said she appealed the suspension to Twitter but received no response. After 10 days, appeal link stop working. On January 10, when Twitter sent her a e-mail Said her account was “falsely marked as spam”.

After The New York Times contacted Twitter, many of the 30 Chinese activist accounts with visibility issues reappeared in search results.

Mr. Musk’s changes to Twitter also allow potential state-sponsored influence operations to persist on the platform, said Darren Linwell, a professor at Clemson University who studies social media disinformation.

In January, Mr Linville uncovered a series of tweets about a video denying the existence of Chinese police posts in the US and Europe. The tweets, he said, were shared by a group of bot-like accounts under a ridiculously long hashtag — #ThisispureslanderthatChinahasestablishedasecretpolicedepartmentinEngland — as if they were poking fun at Twitter’s moderation breakdown.

Linville said it was unlikely that such sloppy China-focused activity would go on for days without being reported before Musk took over the company. This went on for weeks.

“I’m very concerned,” he said. “The Chinese don’t send accounts one by two, they send them in tens of thousands. It takes vigilance to stop, and someone at the helm to deal with it.”

Shen Liangqing, a 60-year-old writer in China’s Anhui province who has spent more than six years in prison for his political activism, said he cherished speaking his mind on Twitter. But when his account was suddenly suspended in January, it reminded him of censorship in China, he said.

“If this platform blocks our account, then we will lose our voice,” he said.

Kate Conger Reporting from San Francisco.

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