Some Twitter users experienced a very strange phenomenon last Friday night, May 31st (I’m in SouthEast Asia, Friday morning in USA), where users experienced a sudden loss of followers and it soon became clear that it was due to Twitter suspending or banning accounts. Banned or suspended accounts will show up on a Twitter user account as a loss of followers.
It also soon became clear that those missing accounts were of Chinese dissidents or people critical of the Chinese regime. This sweep pretty much affected all the “who is who” of the Chinese dissident sphere. It was a blanket across the board ban. Most of the people affected were Chinese citizens or ethnic Chinese residing overseas, including in USA, but some affected users were also Americans which are not of Chinese ancestry. Some reports place the number of affected accounts to at least 32,000.
Even more troubling, there are reports that Facebook and YouTube also banned many thousands of accounts related to China critics and this happened at the same time as Twitter. This suggests that this is a coordinated event.
It is already well known that the Chinese regime considers any individual of ethnic Chinese background, whether born in China or not, as a Chinese that is subject to China’s laws. We have already seen many instances of American, Australian and Canadian citizens as well as from other countries that once they arrived in China are promptly arrested and placed under the Chinese penal system, same as any other Chinese citizen and the most typical offense, seems to be that they made comments or activities that are critical of the Chinese government.
In anticipation of the 30th anniversary of the Chinese anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, the Chinese regime has been arresting activists and opposition figures in a major scale in a massive effort to silence the voices of those that wish to commemorate the sacrifice of the thousands of Chinese students that were peacefully protesting for democratic reform and were murdered by the thousands by units of the Chinese People’s Army in that fateful day.
So, in that background, and considering that this is a major anniversary, it would not be surprising to see the Chinese regime going all out to silence its critics overseas. And that bring us to these Twitter actions. Twitter’s censoring record is already well known, but we really have to think very hard about what motivations Twitter would have to aid the Chinese regime’s repression. Has Twitter come down so low? Twitter is blocked in China. Users can only access Twitter by using VPN software in order to bypass the government firewall, so I don’t see any chance of Twitter ingratiating itself with the Chinese regime with the hope of being able to enter the Chinese market.
It’s a mystery at this point, what could motivate Twitter to commit these actions. Are there some rogue groups within Twitter that wish to support the Chinese regime? Furthermore, at this very polarizing time where China and the United States are in the middle of an ever increasing rivalry clearly seen in the current trade war, the tensions in the South China Sea and the overall competition for supremacy in the Pacific as well as a competition to dominate the future of tech, does Twitter want to be seen as a party that supports the United States’ major rival?
Does Twitter want to be associated with the regime that has 1 to 3 million minority Uighurs detained in concentration camps? A regime that without any doubt has become the ultimate police state? A regime that is cracking down on religious expression and is demolishing churches and Buddhist temples on a massive scale? A regimen that jails anybody that dares to write or say anything critical of the regime on social media?
I would think Twitter does not want to be seen as a supporter of such regime. Still, Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey owe us an explanation, a detailed explanation. These actions, that now Twitter users have come to label in hashtags as #TwitterBlackFriday and #TwitterMassacre require a clear investigation and possibly even action by the US government. Is a foreign power in collusion with an American company to silence critics of the Chinese regime in American soil? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t they be able to do the same with Americans that are critical of the Chinese government in regards to its policies and actions with America and its rivalry with the United States government? If that’s the case, has Twitter then become a foreign agent working for the Chinese government?
This may seem far fetched, but still, Friday’s event is a major censoring event for the benefit of a foreign power that affected Twitter users in America and many other countries. This is not a little thing. The Trump administration needs to make sure that this is investigated and that the truth comes out. This is a matter of national security and involves a possible Chinese influence operation on American soil.
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To be fair to Twitter, we need to also consider one other possible explanation. Has the Chinese government hacked Twitter? It’s too soon to know, but there is evidence that Chinese police can access individual’s Twitter accounts and delete them or delete tweets.
Myself, I’m very involved in Twitter in relation to China since I report there on the geostrategic and military balance between China and its opponents, and I can say that during the last few months, I’ve seen a number of reports of Chinese people in China being summoned by police and told that they need to delete specific Tweets. In some cases, those users failed to delete the Tweets and they later reported that the Tweets were either deleted or their account was deleted by user action (but was not done by them). So, right there we have some evidence that the Chinese government can hack into Twitter accounts. Can they also hack into the Twitter administration system that can suspend and delete user accounts? We don’t know yet, but I believe they have the hacking capability to do that since there is a very clear record about China’s capabilities in that regard.
One ironic element about this is that if the Chinese government was somehow involved in this censoring operation in the hope of silencing the protest voices about the Tiananmen Square massacre, well, I think it’ll have the opposite effect because there is going to be a lot of publicity about these events. And if the Chinese government was not involved, still, whoever planned this, it’s going to get the opposite effect.
Now we wait for Twitter to speak up and tell us what happened. We hope that Twitter will be open and revealing about this or Twitter’s credibility is going to suffer greatly. The issues with the Chinese regime are one area where the American people is united on their opposition to such regime, so I don’t see Twitter making many friends with these actions.
Some of the suspended Twitter accounts have been reinstated, others still not. One notable thing noted in all the account that have been reinstated is that they lost at least half the followers, sometimes much more. This is another thing that Twitter has to explain and hopefully will correct.
Update: Twitter has responded and regrettably, it continues to expect that these events are just “unintended mistakes”. This is their response:
“As part of our work to protect the health of the public conversation, we proactively challenge 8–10 million accounts per week for engaging in various forms of platform manipulation, including spam and other inauthentic behaviors. As part of these efforts, we suspended a number of accounts this week. A significant proportion for engaging in a mix of spamming, inauthentic behavior, & ban evasion, all of which are violations of the Twitter Rules — regardless of the content being shared or views expressed.”
“However, some of these were involved in commentary about China. These accounts were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities — this was a routine action on our part. Sometimes our routine actions catch false positives or we make errors. We apologize. We’re working today to ensure we overturn any errors but that we remain vigilant in enforcing our rules for those who violate them. As always, account holders can appeal: https://help.twitter.com/forms/general”
US Senator Marco Rubio made a Twitter statement where he said: “Twitter has become a Chinese government censor”. He is right. As stated earlier, the US government needs to get involved. We are seeing an American company censoring US citizens in America on behalf of China. This has gone far enough. It is also possible that Twitter is trying to cover up a Chinese hack.
The following are screen shots of Twitter postings about these events:
The author of this article, Carlos Galicia, is an Spanish man based in Vietnam that reports on the geostrategic & military balance of power between China and its opponents in the Indo-Pacific region. He can be contacted via Twitter.
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