Twitter saw a surge in downloads in China as protests against the country’s stringent COVID restrictions erupted nationwide over the last few days.
The social media app ranked 9th amongst all the free iOS apps in China on November 29, up from 150th a week ago, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower. Discussion about the protests, a rare act of defiance that has swept across major Chinese cities and universities since the past weekend, is closely monitored by censors and has been largely silenced on local social media. As a result, people are pouring onto foreign alternatives like Twitter to disseminate information and Telegram to organize demonstrations.
The spike in Twitter downloads is intriguing since the app has long been blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”. Accessing the app in China requires the use of a censorship circumvention tool or a virtual private network. The app has, however, remained available for download in the Apple App Store, at least since February 2019, according to Apple Censorship, an independent project that tracks censorship in the App Store.
Gauging the size of Android downloads is trickier because Google Play is unavailable in China. Android-based app stores are operated by an array of local tech firms like Huawei and Xiaomi, which tend to strictly follow local censorship rules. Apple has also in recent years come under fire for bowing to censorship requests from some governments.
Even when China-based users manage to jump over the “Great Firewall” and get on Twitter, they will likely have a difficult time finding the information they need. Bot accounts are bombarding searches for Chinese cities with tweets of porn, escort ads and gambling links, making it impossible to look up city-related protest news. It doesn’t help that Elon Musk recently axed the team at Twitter responsible for fighting propaganda and misinformation.
Given the increase in Chinese-language bot activity, which is thought to be state-directed, it’s hard to know how many of the new app installs belong to protestors.
Access to Twitter and other Western internet platforms is increasingly challenging in China as Beijing continues to clamp down on censorship circumvention tools. All VPN providers without government authorization are in effect illegal. In October, a protocol widely used in VPN services experienced an unprecedented blockade in the country. It won’t be a surprise if the authorities move to further tighten the grip on VPN tools following this wave of protests.