Twitter struggled with a wave of spam tweets promoting gambling, escort services and porn that’s filling search results for major Chinese cities on Sunday amid protests.
According to an initial analysis highlighted by Stanford Internet Observatory’s Alex Stamos estimated that over 95 percent of tweets under the Beijing search term were from spam accounts, the vast majority of which only recently started tweeting in high volumes. Some accounts were years old but only started tweeting in the last few hours — one highlighted account was created in 2015, but the over 2,000 tweets it posted were sent over the last day or so.
Still working on our own analysis, but here is some good initial data that points to this being an intentional attack to throw up informational chaff and reduce external visibility into protests in China (Twitter being blocked for most PRC citizens):https://t.co/kPK7nMeCPu
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) November 28, 2022
Protesters have been using VPNs to access Western services like Twitter and Telegram to coordinate efforts and work around Chinese government censorship. The spam, however, is reportedly coming from government-linked accounts. Along with the impact on the protests, it’s disrupting people’s ability to get on-the-ground information about events.
The protests are against China’s zero-COVID strategy, which is responsible for rolling lockdowns attempting to control the spread of COVID-19. The policy has been in place for a while, but protests erupted after an apartment fire killed 10 people and injured nine more — one resident told BBC News that the COVID restrictions prevented people from being able to leave the apartment easily.
An ex-Twitter employee told The Washington Post that it’s not the first time alleged government-linked accounts used these kinds of spam techniques. In the past, Twitter dealt with it through a combination of manual effort and automation, but with Elon Musk gutting the company’s staff in recent weeks, Twitter is having a tough time. The ex-employee said that “the China influence operations and analysts at Twitter all resigned, leaving a large hole to fill.
However, the Post also reported that a current employee told an external researcher that Twitter was aware of the problem and working to resolve it.