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Twitter is banned in China, but downloads surge as protestors look for authentic information


Despite Twitter being banned in China, data from the app analytics firm SensorTower shows that its downloads have been surging in recent days as protests against the never-ending COVID restrictions continue in the country.

According to SensorTower, Twitter ranked 9th amongst all free iOS apps in China on November 29. Only a week ago, the social media app ranked 150th, but seven days changed a lot, indeed.

That’s because protests against the stringent COVID restrictions, sometimes even extending into talking about democracy, have suddenly spilled out into the open, and people began looking for alternative news sources.

twitter-app-stats
SensorTower's stats for Twitter downloads in China.

China’s state censors closely control homegrown websites and apps, and silence dissent immediately.

Twitter, even if its new owner Elon Musk is seemingly doing everything to burn its credentials, is different – for a user in China, it’s possible to find accounts of events that have not been pre-endorsed by the regime in Beijing.

Besides, it seems people are also flocking to Twitter in order to be able to send out information and videos out of China, surrounded by the infamous “Great Firewall” of domestic internet regulations.

This is where it gets interesting since Twitter has long been blocked in China. The surge in downloads of the app then must mean users are able to jump over the “Great Firewall” – either by applying a censorship circumvention tool, or logging into virtual private networks.

It helps that Twitter has remained available for download in the Apple App Store, even though Apple has a different version of it because it needs to conform with Chinese licensing laws.

The size of Android downloads is a guessing game because Google Play is unavailable in China, and Android-based app stores are operated by government-friendly local tech firms like Xiaomi and Huawei.

It’s hard to say how all this will develop, if only Musk has now decided to fight Apple over the latter company’s alleged intentions to remove Twitter from the App Store worldwide.

Besides, Apple is no saint in this situation. The biggest company has recently restricted use of AirDrop, the file-sharing feature on iPhones and other Apple devices, in China.

AirDrop relies on direct connections between devices, forming a local network of devices that don’t need the internet to communicate. This means that protestors in China could effectively communicate by AirDropping content about demonstrations and organizing in other ways.

This is no longer possible as AirDrop in China can now only be set to receive messages from everyone for only 10 minutes, before switching off – one cannot keep the “everyone” setting on permanently.

Yeah, Apple says it’s planning to make the feature a global standard – but only next year, and the company has rushed to update it specifically in China, where dissent against the government began growing just as Xi Jinping was anointed to a third term as the country’s leader last month.

Beijing is well aware of Twitter’s surging popularity in the country, and is taking action. China-watchers say that tweets connected to Beijing are flooding the platform with spam escort ads, making it more difficult for Chinese users to access information about the protests.

Will Musk take action? It’s purely speculative, of course, but Twitter needs cash, and Reuters recently reported that China has been splurging on global advertising on the site – the country is Twitter’s fastest-growing overseas ad market. Musk’s Tesla also sells hundreds of thousands of cars in China.


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