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Escort ad spam used to drown out China COVID protests


They say that sex sells – and in this case, it appears to be a good tactic for obscuring news feeds on Twitter about the rash of protests that have erupted in response to China’s latest COVID-19 clampdown.

Those seeking more information on Elon Musk’s social media platform about widespread street demonstrations against the severe lockdown measures imposed by the Beijing government were instead met with a glut of advertisements for Chinese escort services.

“Search for Beijing, Shanghai, [and] other cities in Chinese on Twitter and you'll mostly see ads for escorts/porn/gambling, drowning out legitimate search results,” tweeted China watcher Air-Moving Device. “Data analysis in this thread suggests that there has been a significant uptick in these spam tweets.”

The Chinese data analyst claims to have run checks on tweets connected to Beijing posted on November 28 using the keyword “latest” and found that 95% of them were spam.

“They tweet at a high, steady rate throughout the day, suggesting automation,” he added. “Then I looked at the number of tweets by each account over time. Interestingly, more than 70% of these spam accounts only started tweeting like crazy recently. The rest seem to have been spamming consistently for a while.”

Twitter screenshot of spam research graph

China bot barrage

Who precisely are “they” remains a matter of speculation, and as ever, this was not lacking on Twitter, which has seen its anti-propaganda team slashed as part of mass layoffs under Musk’s controversial leadership.

“Chinese bots are flooding Twitter with escort ads, possibly to make it more difficult for Chinese users to access information about the mass protests,” tweeted tech and censorship analyst Mengyu Dong. “Some of these acts have been dormant for years, only to become active yesterday after protests broke out in China.”

For instance, one account apparently belonging to an escort called “Amy Young” set up in 2015 but dormant since then – and as of the time of writing, suspended by Twitter – suddenly posted more than 2,000 tweets in less than 24 hours.

Air-Moving Device said he also found similar results when he ran checks on Twitter searches for China’s second city, Shanghai. “Note that these are just a small sample of the search results – go and search 北京/上海 [Beijing or Shanghai] and you'll see new spam tweets come up every few seconds. So the number of spam accounts is way larger than a few hundred.”

Despite the bots, some determined plowing through Twitter still uncovers what the Chinese authorities are allegedly keen to cover up.

“Seemingly spontaneous protest converging again at Urumqi Road in Shanghai, despite heavy police presence,” reported another tweeter. “People are shouting ‘let them go!’ apparently in reference to those arrested at previous protests.”

Musk under fire

And Musk himself came under fire as it became clear to Chinese users of his platform that it had been swamped by spam posts.

“Can @elonmusk explain why top search results for these Chinese cities are all escort ads?” asked Wenhao, who monitors the spread of disinformation on social media. “There have been active protests in these cities and people inside China are coming to Twitter to see what the government has censored.”

“He can't,” replied another Twitter user. “His super factory produced over 750,000 Tesla EVs [electric vehicles] in Shanghai [in] a year. Tesla sold 930,000 EVs last year in China.” This latter statement is borne out by Tesla’s own figures for 2021.


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