The Toll That Twitter’s Glitches Are Taking on Chinese Activists

In November, Bao Pu, a veteran human rights activist who was visiting Beijing, posted videos on Twitter of university protests against China’s tough coronavirus lockdown orders. He gained over 10,000 followers in subsequent weeks.

But friends and fellow activists soon told him they were having a hard time finding his posts — and even his account — on Twitter.

“I was shocked,” said Mr. Bao, who is based in Hong Kong. He said he feared that Twitter was “putting a limit on the influence” that 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 activists’ accounts did not appear after a search of their Twitter names, the screenshots showed, though impostor accounts turned up. Three of the dissidents said their accounts had also been suspended with no warning and reinstated only after appeals.

What the Chinese activists encountered on Twitter is representative of issues that have plagued the social media service since Elon Musk took over the company in October. As Mr. Musk has slashed Twitter’s work force to about 2,200 employees from 7,500, fewer people have been available to oversee the company’s spam filters, handle user queries about accounts and fix other issues, six people with knowledge of the service said.

That has led to problems across the platform. In November, after a turbulent Brazil election, hashtags that falsely claimed President Jair Bolsonaro had won the popular vote began trending on Twitter. Racial slurs have swelled on the platform and child abuse imagery remains rampant, though Mr. Musk pledged to cleanse the site of the material. Last Wednesday, users around the world reported they could no longer post messages or send messages to one another, in what appeared to be new glitches.

The issues have also meant that leading Chinese voices on Twitter were muffled at a crucial political moment, even though Mr. Musk has championed free speech. In November, protesters in dozens of Chinese cities objected to President Xi Jinping’s restrictive “zero Covid” policies, in some of the most widespread demonstrations in a generation.

The issues faced by the Chinese activists’ Twitter accounts were rooted in mistakes in the company’s automated systems, which are intended to filter out spam and government disinformation campaigns, four people with knowledge of the service said.

These systems were once routinely monitored, with mistakes regularly addressed by staff. But a team that cleaned up spam and countered influence operations and that had about 50 people at its peak, with about a third in Asia, was cut to single digits in recent layoffs and departures, two of the people said. The division head for the Asia-Pacific region, whose responsibilities included the Chinese activist accounts, was laid off in January. Twitter’s resources dedicated to supervising content moderation for Chinese-language posts have been drastically reduced, the people said.

So when some Twitter systems recently failed to differentiate between a Chinese disinformation campaign and genuine accounts, that led to some accounts of Chinese activists and dissidents being difficult to find, the people said.

“It’s tough being a Twitter user nowadays,” said Jenn Takahashi, who runs the Twitter account @bestofdyingtwit, which has logged the platform’s shortcomings since Mr. Musk took the helm. She said she had also had difficulty seeing tweets from people she followed, with notifications “either delayed or sent twice,” and direct messages becoming cluttered with “so much spam.”

Twitter and Mr. Musk did not respond to requests for comment. In December, Mr. Musk acknowledged the visibility restrictions on some users and announced plans to improve Twitter’s transparency on the issue.

Non-English-language moderation has been a particular challenge for American social media companies, which often do not have enough staff in those areas and rely on imperfect machine translations, said Gabriel Nicholas, a research fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology who studies content moderation and disinformation on social media.

“If Twitter is making mistakes in Chinese-language Twitter, then it’s very possible that they’re making mistakes in other languages,” he said.

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

During November’s protests, Twitter was inundated with Chinese-language spam bots hawking pornography, gambling sites and escort services, a common tactic by the Chinese government to influence the types of China-related information the outside world sees. The company’s automated systems had been poorly maintained in recent months, allowing more spam and, at times, inadvertently restricting prominent Chinese accounts, four people said.

One account, “Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher,” which has over 950,000 followers and became a hub of protest-related videos, did not appear in search results when The New York Times searched for it in early January.

A human-rights activist based in Canada best known by the name Liu Shasha said she used a third-party testing site in December to confirm that her Twitter account, as well as those of a dozen other Chinese activists, no longer appeared when users searched for them on the social media service.

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

According to results collected on Jan. 5 using Shadow Bird, a website that analyzes accounts blocked from Twitter’s search results, tweets from 30 accounts of Chinese dissidents were not showing up in search results. (The website takes into account how search results change based on users’ locations.)

Some Chinese activists said their Twitter accounts had been suspended in recent weeks with no explanation.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Wang Qingpeng, a human rights lawyer in Seattle whose Twitter account was suspended on Dec. 15. “My account isn’t liberal or conservative, I never write in English, and I only focus on Chinese human rights issues.”

Ms. Wang, whose tweets have mostly been about campaigns that promoted awareness of Chinese political prisoners, said she had appealed the suspension to Twitter but received no reply. After 10 days, the appeal link stopped working. Her account was reinstated on Jan. 10 when Twitter sent her an email saying her account had been “flagged as spam by mistake.”

Many of the 30 Chinese activist accounts that had visibility issues have appeared on search results again after The Times contacted Twitter.

Mr. Musk’s changes at Twitter have also allowed potential state-backed influence campaigns to linger on the platform, said Darren Linvill, a professor at Clemson University who studies social media disinformation.

In January, Mr. Linvill identified a series of tweets about a video that denied the existence of Chinese police outposts in the United States and Europe. The tweets were shared by a swarm of bot-like accounts that posted under a hashtag so absurdly long — #ThisispureslanderthatChinahasestablishedasecretpolicedepartmentinEngland — it was as if they were mocking Twitter’s breakdown in moderation, he said.

Before Mr. Musk’s takeover, Mr. Linvill said, such a sloppy China-focused campaign was unlikely to last a few days before being flagged. This one persisted for weeks.

“I’m very concerned,” he said. “The Chinese don’t send accounts in ones and twos. They send them in tens of thousands. That takes vigilance to stop and that takes someone at the helm to deal with.”

Shen Liangqing, 60, a writer in China’s Anhui Province who has spent over six years in jail for his political activism, said he had cherished speaking his mind on Twitter. But when his account was abruptly suspended in January, it reminded him of China’s censorship, he said.

“If this platform blocks our accounts, then we’ll lose a vehicle for our voice,” he said.

Kate Conger contributed reporting from San Francisco.