Twitter search spam campaign hides China riots, researchers say

Elon Musk meanwhile muses whether Apple 'hate[s] free speech in America' because the company mostly stopped advertising on Twitter

Twitter over the weekend was flooded with spam and suggestive ads in what appears to be an attempt to help the Chinese government hide news about rioters protesting coronavirus restrictions in China.

"Chinese bots are flooding Twitter with 'escort ads', possibly to make it more difficult for Chinese users to access information about the mass protests," wrote Mengyu Dong, a researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory, a social media research project, in a Twitter post. "Some of these [accounts] have been dormant for years, only to become active yesterday after protests broke out in China."

Other researchers have similarly concluded that recent Twitter searches using Chinese characters for Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have been returning significantly more ads for escorts, gambling, and the like as a way to drown out politically sensitive search results.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said via Twitter that he'd previously warned about the risks billionaire Elon Musk was taking by cutting so many of the company's staff and that this appears to be the first major failure to stop a government interference campaign under Musk's leadership.

Stamos said the spam campaign, which produces escort ads and other content when Chinese city names are entered into Twitter search, appears to be "an intentional attack to throw up informational chaff and reduce external visibility into protests in China" given that Twitter is blocked within China.

China over the weekend saw mass protests over the government's coronavirus lockdown policy in cities all across the country.

Musk – who relies on the favor of Chinese authorities to safeguard Tesla's market and assets in China and appears to have courted that favor with government-appreciated remarks about Taiwan – attempted to make light of the pro-government influence operation through his recently purchased social media mouthpiece.

"The amount of pro psy ops on Twitter is ridiculous! At least with new Verified they will pay $8 for the privilege haha," he tweeted.

Then he followed up with an image of hate symbol Pepe the Frog, encircled by the phrase, "Honestly I don't care about this particular psyop."

The Chief Twit, as Musk has referred to himself, subsequently used his $44 billion personal social media bully pulpit to challenge Apple's decision to mostly stop advertising on Twitter.

"Apple has mostly stopped advertising on Twitter," he wrote. "Do they hate free speech in America?"

Twitter's own fact checking system Birdwatch explained in an addition to Musk's post that Apple's ad agency had recommended clients stop buying ads on Twitter and that Apple is exercising its right to free speech by not advertising.

Last week, Media Matters for America, a non-profit that monitors for conservative misinformation, reported that Twitter had lost 50 of its top 100 advertisers less than a month after Elon Musk acquired the social media site. At the time, Musk said he had purchased Twitter "to try to help humanity, whom I love," as he put it in a letter he wrote to calm advertisers worried about his agenda and antics.

Apple – which coincidentally faces a potential iPhone shortfall as a result of the lockdown protests in China and shares Musk's deference toward the Chinese government as a matter of business interest – was not among controversy-shy advertisers listed by Media Matters and the iGiant did not respond to a request to confirm that it had dialed back its advertising on Twitter.

Musk, who manages to find time for social media arguments despite his supposed leadership role at other companies, subsequently claimed, "Apple has also threatened to withhold Twitter from its App Store, but won’t tell us why."

Yet it appears Musk has some idea that Apple's alleged threat arises from not following the company's iOS rules. Apple requires a 30 percent sales commission for in-app purchases and imposes content moderation requirements on social media services – something less evident on Twitter during the Musk regime than it was during previous management.

After professing ignorance about the cause of Apple's discontent, the Chief Twit posted an image suggesting he would "go to war" rather than pay Apple's 30 percent app commission, which presumably would reduce revenue from in-app sales of any service Twitter chooses to offer through its iOS app.

War against Apple – in court, presumably, despite Musk's gun pandering – has not worked out well for Epic Games, which failed to convince a judge that Apple's platform rules are unlawful. Nonetheless, that decision is being appealed. What's more, cracks in Google's similar Play Store payment requirements have appeared.

So who knows. Musk might well benefit from joining the battle to break into Apple's walled garden and loot it. With sufficient help from government trustbusters, he might get the full $8 demanded of companies, governments, and individuals seeking to make their free speech Twitter "Verified."

Meanwhile, mitigating Twitter search manipulation may have to wait for spam damage that Musk cares about. ®

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