In Tweets: Protests Break Out Across China After Urumqi Fire

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The current wave of protests across China in the wake of a deadly fire in Urumqi has been closely tracked and analysed on Twitter by on-the-ground observers, with others relaying content from Chinese social media, and still others providing context and commentary from elsewhere. Frustration with China’s unpredictable and rigid zero-COVID regime has been mounting for some time, including offline eruptions from a solo protest in Beijing on the eve of the recent Party Congress to mass actions by workers at Foxconn’s plant in Zhengzhou. The latest wave of protests is fueled by suspicions that COVID restrictions are to blame for the fire deaths, and that the true death toll has been concealed. It marks a significant escalation, appearing to cross the geographic and ethnic lines that have tended to isolate political movements in the past, and including some explicit calls for broad political change. CDT will have more news and translation coverage soon.

The torrent of information underscores Twitter’s exceptional value as a channel for breaking news. On Mastodon, the decentralized network widely embraced as an alternative to Twitter after the latter’s controversial recent sale to tech tycoon Elon Musk, many users lamented the relative paucity of information circulating there, much of which had itself originated from Twitter. At the same time, though, the wealth of information posted to Twitter also highlights what is at stake amid mounting questions over the site’s ability to moderate content, ward off malicious interference, and even reliably stay online under its new management.

One person chronicling events was the Associated Press’ Dake Kang, whose carefully measured thread contextualized the protests and the events that triggered them with the AP’s own reporting:

Legions of others provided updates on the expanding protests as they unfolded over the weekend:

(Note: Brendan O’Kane points out that the cry is likely jiefeng 解封, or “lift the lockdown,” not jiefang 解放, or “liberate.”)

While the above collection focuses on English-language materials, @whyyoutouzhele has been a particularly notable source in Chinese.

Beyond accounts of the protests, Twitter offered a platform for Xinjiang specialists to critique media coverage of the story. From Georgetown’s James Millward and the University of Sheffield’s David Tobin, for example:


Other scholars and observers offered views on the broader context of protest in China:


Beyond its role in hosting reporting and commentary for global audiences, Twitter also acted as a conduit for suppressed information to be reposted to Twitter’s tightly controlled Chinese counterparts, aiding the survival and distribution of content about the protests:

There were signs of efforts to undermine this role, however:

It is unclear to what extent Twitter currently has the capacity to address this kind of apparent interference on top of other reported manipulation attempts and the traffic burden of the ongoing World Cup. The company now has a fraction of its former staff of around 7,500 following mass layoffs and resignations, which hit its content, human rights, and security teams especially hard.

Vast quantities have been written about the likely effects of these cutbacks and other idiosyncratic management decisions in recent weeks, but former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos succinctly described the dangers to Semafor’s Reed Albergotti last Friday:

Eventually, there will be an issue that has to be addressed by SREs [site reliability engineer] or it will cause a cascading failure. Question will be if the right team exists at that point to stop the cascade. The other issue is that there is basically no security team left. So, it isn’t clear whether bug bounty reports are being addressed and if anybody is looking at alerts and investigating for breaches.

Twitter was never going to just fail. The problem is that Elon is now running much higher risks, with a team formed of the people who couldn’t afford to quit. One of my big worries is that the team that stopped government influence ops is decimated. It’s pretty much open season on Twitter for Iran, China, Russia, and anybody else who wants to run large networks of fake accounts to manipulate opinion. [Source]


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