Despite being banned in China, Twitter’s downloads have recently increased due to protests over the nation’s ongoing COVID restrictions, according to reports from the app analytics company SensorTower.
According to SensorTower, the social media app surged from 150th rank a week earlier to ninth place among all the free iOS apps in China on November 29. A rare show of resistance that has spread through significant Chinese towns and universities since the weekend is closely watched by censors, and local social media has largely been silenced. As a result, people are rushing to foreign platforms like Twitter to spread information and Telegram to organize protests.
The rare, extensive protests began last week following the deaths of ten people in a fire in the city of Urumqi. Many think people could not escape the fire because of Covid restrictions; however, authorities have denied this.
Chinese media has not reported on them, as is typical with riots in China, even small-scale protests. News on China’s Covid outbreak has been muted recently, with sources emphasizing upbeat topics such as China’s latest space achievements.
Currently, an info-op is being run, perhaps by Beijing, to stop people from sharing videos of protests. Thousands of bots tweeting in Mandarin Chinese posted escort adverts as a distraction strategy.
For hours over the weekend, spammers ensured that anyone searching for content connected to the towns where the protests were taking place or using Chinese names for the areas would be directed to pages of irrelevant pointless tweets rather than the relevant information. Chinese censors also constantly monitor the Chinese Twitter-like program Weibo, which could have led to users rushing to foreign alternatives to spread the news.
The Great Firewall Breached
Moreover, it appears that people are rushing to Twitter to send information and videos out of China, which is ringed by the infamous “Great Firewall” of domestic internet laws. The increase in Twitter downloads is surprising, given the platform has long been banned by China’s “Great Firewall.” The spike in app downloads must therefore indicate that users override the “Great Firewall” by using a virtual private network and censorship circumvention tool.
It helps that Twitter is still available for download in the Apple App Store, even if Apple has a customized version of it due to Chinese licensing requirements.
Tracking Android downloads is more challenging because Google Play is unavailable in China. Android app shops are run by various local technology companies, like Xiaomi and Huawei, who usually adhere strictly to local censorship laws. Apple has also faced criticism in recent years for complying with government censorship requests.
Even if Chinese users manage to breach the “Great Firewall” and access Twitter, they will most likely struggle to obtain the information they want. Bot accounts are flooding Chinese city searches with porn tweets, escort advertising, and gambling links, making it impossible to find news about protests in the city. It doesn’t help that Elon Musk just terminated the Twitter team in charge of battling propaganda and misinformation.
It’s difficult to determine how the protesters own many brand-new app installations, given the spike in Chinese-language bot activity, which is thought to be state-run. As Beijing tries to clamp down on tools that avoid censorship, access to Twitter and other Western platforms is becoming increasingly difficult in China. Without official authorization, all VPN providers are, in fact, illegal. In October, a widely used VPN service protocol was subjected to an unprecedented nationwide shutdown.
Following this surge of protests, it wouldn’t be surprising if the government decided to tighten its control of VPN tools further. As protests against China’s harsh COVID-19 policy became louder, local police randomly stopped and searched people for forbidden foreign social media apps to prevent further escalation.