China's Twitter-Spam War Against Pro-Tibet Activists

Beijing believes it has a real interest in trying to shape online discussions, but can spamming people work?

tibet march23 p.jpg

People use computers at an internet cafe in Hefei, Anhui province / Reuters

Over the last week, supporters of Tibet, and the merely curious, have seen information warfare up close. On Twitter, several hundred bots (automated programs that generate content) flooded discussions using the hashtags #Tibet and #Freetibet with meaningless tweets and spam. If you were someone trying to learn more about Tibet, you kept bumping up against these threads, and eventually you may have given up and moved on to some other subject. This is cyber as a weapon of mass distraction. Twitter eventually began to filter out the bots, and the spam was cut off to a trickle.

More malevolently, Tibetan activists have been threatened on Twitter. The poet and blogger Woeser was repeatedly reminded that Ai Weiwei was arrested by one Twitter user, suggesting that she should meet the same fate. In addition, the Central Tibet Administration, International Campaign for Tibet, and others were targeted by malicious emailsVisitors to Tibetan websites could also be infected by malware.

As with all hacking and activism, it is hard to say with any certainty who is behind these actions, though there is a history of apparent Chinese attacks on Tibetan targets (see the 2009 GhostNet investigation). We don't know the IP addresses of the people who set up the Twitter bots, and even if we did, they can mask their true location with proxies. In this instance, Si Dawson, the programmer behind Twit Cleaner, a program that monitors and cleans Twitter feeds, told me that the spam types were disparate, suggesting that there were several different people or groups involved, but a smart spammer can set up 20,000 bots by himself.

How are we to interpret these actions? First, it is a reflection of China's lack of "soft power." Chinese officials have responded to the over two dozen Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest conditions in Tibetan regions by saying that these people are "criminals" and "directly connected with the Dalai clique's inciting of popular feelings overseas." These arguments are not likely to resonate with most Western audiences. I wonder if the explosion of attention and interest in arresting the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, generated through social media, spooked Chinese policymakers. Who's to say that Tibet is not the next issue to trend? These types of Twitter attacks (see Brian Krebs' post about them during the Russian parliamentary election) are likely to become more widespread, though less effective, as Twitter develops even better ways to control.

Second, even if you think the Internet is being balkanized--splintering from a global platform to regional or national intranets--there is still significant spill over. National actors believe they have a real interest in trying to shape discussions in other cyberspaces, witness China and Twitter as well as the White House's announcement this week that it was issuing guidances that would make it easier to transfer software and services that "support the free flow of information to citizens of Iran."

This point shades over into my last. We have a tendency to talk about the cyber problem in U.S.-China relations--cyberwar and cyberespionage. But this week reminds us that what we are often also talking about is really a conflict over information. Cyber is just the means.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Adam Segal is the Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes at Asia Unbound.

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