Twitter purged tens of thousands of accounts critical of the Chinese government just days ahead of the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.
The action prompted widespread complaints, prompting the social media giant to issue a rare apology while downplaying its censorship of Chinese civil rights activists and cultural commentators.
Details of Twitter’s crackdown were brought to light by Chinese human rights activist Yaxue Cao, founder and editor of China Change. He posted that “a large number of Chinese Twitter accounts are being suspended today. They ‘happen’ to be accounts critical of China, both inside and outside China.”
— Yaxue Cao (@YaxueCao) June 1, 2019
Many of the affected users operated outside of China, including in Germany and the United States. These accounts have been around for years, largely engaging in commentary on Chinese culture and politics—some of which amassed upwards of 100,000 followers.
“Among the accounts suspended are some prominent, long-time Chinese-language tweeps: @Sasha_Gong, @wmeng8. Both live in the US,” wrote Cao, who highlighted the suspension of over a dozen prominent accounts in a Twitter thread.
Among the accounts suspended are some prominent, long-time Chinese-language tweeps: @Sasha_Gong, @wmeng8. Both live in the US. More accts have been suspended than I can keep up. @Twitter @twittersecurity @TwitterForGood pic.twitter.com/QCDa6yRu1K
— Yaxue Cao (@YaxueCao) June 1, 2019
The suspensions did not go unnoticed outside of Chinese circles.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio was among the first to boost Cao’s highlighting of the bans, and condemned Twitter for acting as a censor for the Chinese government.
“[Twitter] has apparently suspended a large number of accounts that are critical of China including accounts of people outside of China. Twitter has become a Chinese govt censor,” wrote Rubio.
The Senator’s rebuke prompted the social media giant to issue an explanation on its Public Policy Feed, where it defied speculation that the abuse of mass reports by Chinese authorities prompted the bans. Twitter claims that the sweep, which affected tens of thousands of users, was merely the result of “routine action.”
“As part of our work to protect the health of the public conversation, we proactively challenge 8-10 million accounts per week for engaging in various forms of platform manipulation, including spam and other inauthentic behaviors.
As part of these efforts, we suspended a number of accounts this week. A significant proportion for engaging in a mix of spamming, inauthentic behavior, & ban evasion, all of which are violations of the Twitter Rules — regardless of the content being shared or views expressed.
However, some of these were involved in commentary about China. These accounts were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities — this was a routine action on our part.
Sometimes our routine actions catch false positives or we make errors. We apologize. We’re working today to ensure we overturn any errors but that we remain vigilant in enforcing our rules for those who violate them.”
Twitter concluded its statement with a link to its suspension appeal form.
China suppresses information and commentary about the Tiananmen Square massacre, censoring search engines like Google from delivering search results relating to the event. Official Chinese estimates place the death toll within the low hundreds, but as many as 2,700 people may have been killed in the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1989.
Twitter has come under increasing scrutiny for censoring independent journalists, human rights activists, and Western conservatives.
The Chinese regime’s brutal treatment of citizens critical of the government remains ongoing. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the Chinese police have escalated their online censorship efforts by arresting and torturing posters for criticizing the government on Twitter.
For its part, Twitter has come under increasing scrutiny for censoring independent journalists, human rights activists, and Western conservatives. Speaking to the Committee to Protect Journalists in a 2018 expose, foreign-language journalists affected by the bans say the platform is inconsistent with its compliance with official censorship requests and have complained about the lack of remediation options.
Ian Miles Cheong is the managing editor of Human Events