Widespread protests erupted in China this weekend, marking “the largest opposition demonstration against the ruling Communist Party in decades.” AP News reports. Many protesters attempted to live-document the events to raise awareness and show solidarity on Twitter. The demonstrations were so strong that the Chinese authorities actually appeared to relent, appeasing some of the protesters’ demands by easing the tight lockdown restrictions that had sparked the protests.
This could have been a moment that showed that under Elon Musk, Twitter is still a relevant source for breaking news, still a place for free speech demonstrations to reach the masses, and therefore still the only place to see escalating protests how to track this. Instead of this, The Washington Post reported that a barrage of “useless tweets” effectively buried live footage of protests. This prevented users from easily following protest messages, while Twitter appeared to do nothing to stop what researchers called an apparent Chinese influence operation.
For hours, those tweets dropped Chinese city names where protests took place in posts mostly promoting pornography and adult escort services. And it worked, preventing users trying to search city names in Chinese from easily seeing updates on the protests. Researchers told the Post that the tweets were posted by a number of Chinese-language accounts that haven’t been used in months or even years. The tweets appeared early Sunday, shortly after protesters began calling for the resignation of Communist Party leaders.
Examples of tweets can be seen here.
researchers quickly Took note of the alleged Chinese influence operation very early on Sunday. Some took to Twitter directly. Eventually, an outside researcher was able to reach a current Twitter employee who confirmed that Twitter was working to resolve the issue. However, experts told the post that Twitter’s solution appeared to only reduce the problem, not solve it entirely. Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, told the Post his team continued to study the scope and impact of the operation.
Stamos did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment. Twitter reportedly does not have a communications team.
A former Twitter employee told The Post that what Stamos’ team observed was a common tactic used by authoritarian regimes to restrict access to news. Normally, Twitter’s anti-propaganda team would have manually deleted the accounts, the former employee said. But like many other teams hit by Twitter layoffs, layoffs and resignations, this team has been severely reduced.
“All China influence operations and analysts at Twitter have all resigned,” the former Twitter staffer told The Post.
Verification of automatic content removal is increasing
In reducing content moderation teams, Musk appears to be relying primarily on automated content removal to detect violations that previous employees had manually monitored. It has become an issue that extends beyond China. Also this weekend French regulators said they had become dubious about Twitter The spread of misinformation was skillfully stopped and the New Zealand government had to step in and contact Twitter directly when this was the case Twitter failed to identify banned footage of the Christchurch terrorist attack.
A spokesman for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said The Guardian that “Twitter’s automated reporting feature did not identify the content as harmful.” Apparently, the entire Twitter team that New Zealand wanted to work with to block such extremism-related content was fired.
Now Ardern’s office says “only time will tell” if Twitter is truly committed to removing harmful content, and other governments around the world seem to agree. Just today, French regulator of communications Arcom said Reuters that “Twitter has demonstrated a lack of transparency in its fight against misinformation” by releasing a report that specifically notes how “inaccurate” the company has been about how its automated tools combat misinformation.
Corresponding European Union data verified by AP, Twitter had already become lazy about removing hate speech and misinformation over the past year, even before Musk took over. But it’s Musk who must face up to governments scrambling to ensure Twitter’s content moderation actually works to prevent extremism and disinformation campaigns from spreading online and causing real harm.
By mid-2023, Musk will feel more pressure to respond to concerns from countries in the EU, which will soon enact stricter rules to protect online safety. If he doesn’t, he risks fines of up to 6 percent of Twitter’s global revenue. AP reports.
Right now, however, Musk is basically doing the opposite of what online security experts want, according to the AP. While Musk is granting “amnesty” to suspended Twitter accounts, experts told AP they predict misinformation and hate speech will only increase on the platform.
Those experts included members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, who confirmed that the group has not met since Musk acquired it and appears unsure if a scheduled meeting for mid-December will take place. So far, Musk seems to favor Twitter polls over trusting expert opinion when making decisions about restoring suspended accounts. One council member, University of Virginia cyber civil rights expert Danielle Citron, told the AP that “the whole point of the permanent suspension is that these people were so bad, they were bad for business.”
Ars couldn’t immediately reach Citron for comment, but she told AP that — like rumors Twitter could crack at any moment — Musk’s amnesty for suspended accounts is another “disaster to come.”