‘What they’re doing is called distraction’: Chinese spam dilutes Twitter feeds on protests
As protests spread across China over the country’s tight anti-Covid restrictions, Twitter users searching for information on the affected cities were instead flooded with provocative tweets showing young women in suggestive poses advertising “dating” services.
Starting Sunday, November 27, anyone searching for tweets to find information about protest hotspots like Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou will have scrolled through pages and pages of spam content, making it almost impossible to find useful information and share it. As a result, images of the protests were spreading more slowly.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team analysed the Chinese posts, which were still flooding Twitter feeds on December 2, even after the Chinese authorities eased restrictions in cities including Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The tweets were posted every couple of seconds from hundreds of different Twitter accounts, most of them created in the last two months, with few or no followers – common signs of artificially created or fake Twitter profiles.
>> Read more on The Observers: How to investigate a Twitter account or suspicious tweets
The tweets, tagging different cities, had similar, sometimes identical, wording, often random words or meaningless sentence fragments in Chinese and English, and the photos posted appeared countless times.
The same photos are posted over and over again by different accounts, clogging up the Twitter stream. The accounts shown below may have different Twitter handles but they all have the same profile picture suggesting that this is spam content.
Experts suspect that the Chinese government could be involved with the tweets, but there is no evidence in recent findings to show any direct link. Further investigation and collaborative effort with the platforms would be required to identify the source of this network and whether it is coordinated activity.
‘It appears that some of the previous accounts have been suspended’
Digital investigator Benjamin Strick of the Centre for Information Resilience collected more than 3,000 tweets using the location tags of three cities spelled in Mandarin: Beijing #北京 , Hangzhou #杭州 and Chongqing #重庆.
He kept a log and posted his findings on Twitter, calling the accounts “dens of spam”, some of which were interacting with one another, and others that were simply “lone accounts”. In his Twitter thread, Strick shows that the tweets have a minimum audience engagement on the platform and that there are common traits which are found among them.
In a few hours I pulled 3000+ tweets using China location tags #北京, #杭州 & #重庆. These tags are dens of spam.— Benjamin Strick (@BenDoBrown) November 29, 2022
Red lines indicate interactions between accounts (generally normal activity). Orange nodes are lone accounts, almost all of which spam the tags with dating ads. https://t.co/eYYThMcjim pic.twitter.com/7WK1PzDik2
On the morning of Friday, December 2, he noted that there had been over 1,200 tweets published in just 30 minutes under the hashtags of #上海 (Shanghai) #南京 (Nanjing), # 杭州 (Hangzhou), which had also been the case throughout the week.
In an update on his research, Strick noticed that “some of the previous accounts have been suspended”. He explains that this is the systematic nature of spam networks: accounts will be suspended and then new ones created. This distraction campaign shows a breach of Twitter’s policies around spam and hashtag hijacking and Twitter is known for taking down such posts.
Over the past 20 minutes, almost 2000 tweets have been uploaded using the hashtags of major Chinese cities (such as #杭州), all with the text "I'm single, can I get a husband on Twitter".— Benjamin Strick (@BenDoBrown) November 28, 2022
All of the accounts have been made in the past two months, and have zero or few followers. pic.twitter.com/YZSzXIgCkP
The timeline of posts is fairly linear - at least of the 2000 tweets I collected under the #杭州线下 hashtag. But there is barely any engagement on any of the tweets, no retweets, comments or likes, showing that these posts, while there, are not gaining any traction at all. pic.twitter.com/YXKvZVm0R2— Benjamin Strick (@BenDoBrown) November 28, 2022
‘Anyone with a sense of literacy can see that these are just spammy accounts’
When asked whether or not this method of distraction is effective, Strick said that it didn’t tend to work well.
This method of distraction isn’t really successful, as anyone with a sense of digital literacy can see that these are just spammy accounts but it is a hindrance to human rights investigators like me that rely on footage circulated on platforms like Twitter. When I go to those cities and look at the latest content, it’s all dating spam obscuring the videos of protestors being beaten and detained by police in China, so it’s a pretty serious issue, and Twitter should be able to mitigate the spread of the spam.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team took a closer look at who exactly is tweeting spam content. The majority of these Twitter accounts were created in the last month (November 2022), had zero followers and were either following a handful of randomly chosen accounts or none at all.
Sex-related images from China rarely appear on social media since a Chinese government crackdown on vulgar and pornographic content in the 2000s, making it unlikely that tweets advertising sex services using Chinese hashtags are sent by individual people.
Professor Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and an expert on computational social science, says the tweets are a form of “distraction” designed to divert attention from the protests.
What they’re doing is called distraction rather than engaging with the people that have said bad things. It’s very hard to persuade somebody to change their view of things. It is not so hard to get them focused on a new thing, to get them to change their object of attention. The idea is to dilute the bad message and the Chinese government does that at a scale.
‘The idea of controlling information is not going to go away’
On November 30, a tweet posted by Singaporean journalist Melissa Chen reported that Chinese social media users were complaining about their China-made Huawei phones automatically deleting videos of the protests in their gallery.
Chinese social media users report Huawei phones automatically deleting* videos of the protests that took place in China, without notifying the owners.— Melissa Chen (@MsMelChen) November 30, 2022
*Not sure if it’s from the cloud or device level
Our sci-fi movies have not even imagined this level of dystopia… pic.twitter.com/BKtJcRnus5
The FRANCE 24 Observers team could not independently verify this claim but King noted that such a possibility would not come as a surprise.
It would be technically possible and it is highly likely to happen in the future, it’s going to keep happening in different guises, maybe it’s the phone deleting videos, or maybe it’s something that we have not thought of yet. The idea of controlling information is not a new thing and it’s not going to go away.