Li had had 54 accounts on the Chinese social media site Weibo, and they all got shut down one way or another. His posts often triggered the country’s strict censors: One drew attention to the shocking case of a chained mother of eight in eastern China; another petitioned for families of trafficking victims. Eventually he gave up.
“I had no other alternative, so I turned to Twitter,” Li told VICE World News from Italy, where he is now based. He requested the use of only his surname to avoid potential retaliation by the Chinese government, which has previously gone after Chinese nationals who criticized the country on Twitter and Facebook, services that are blocked in China.
To his surprise, Li amassed more than 167,000 followers within months. “The only reason why my account has such a big following is that fewer and fewer people could voice out,” Li said, referring to the shrinking space for speech in China. “I see it as my duty to speak up for those in mainland China.”
Li’s account, @whyyoutouzhele (a jibe at Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian), exemplifies what Twitter means to many Chinese people—in or outside China—seeking to get unvarnished information about the country, some with the help of a virtual private network, or VPN. Chinese activists and intellectuals often circumvent the country’s firewall to get on Twitter, where they can raise awareness about their cause and speak relatively freely.
That was before Elon Musk took over last month. Now Li and other Chinese critics are concerned if Twitter would still be the safe haven it once was.
“Most Chinese users are scared that their accounts might be discovered by Chinese internet police,” said Li, whose friends back at home were recently questioned by Chinese authorities about their connection to him. “Now that Musk has taken control, there are definitely fears that he would develop new ties with China and open up users’ information to the Chinese market.”
Their concerns echoed earlier warnings that the billionaire and his extensive business interests in China could be the missing link Beijing needed to get its hands on users’ data. Even U.S. President Joe Biden weighed in on Wednesday and said Musk’s cooperation and technical relationships with other countries “is worthy of being looked at.”
Others are worried Twitter’s new direction and policies, including a paid verification scheme, would give free rein to state propagandists.
The chaotic early days of a Twitter run by Musk did not inspire confidence.
“Content posted by inauthentic accounts remain on the platform for longer while Twitter’s content moderation teams are constrained,” said Albert Zhang, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre.
Alarmingly, Zhang found a recently intensified campaign, possibly state-affiliated, to harass women of Chinese descent who are critical of Beijing.
For instance, inauthentic accounts amplifying the hashtag #TraitorJiayangFan—which took aim at a Chinese-American journalist at the New Yorker—soared in the weeks around Musk’s purchase of Twitter. At the peak of the attack, Fan received abusive tweets every few minutes. These spam accounts weren’t taken down until Zhang highlighted the case in their report.
“We believe this is due to Twitter currently facing a period of transition and instability, which actors are exploiting,” Zhang said.
And it is chaos indeed. While Musk has vowed to defeat bots on the site, Twitter has been struggling to contain a surge in hateful conduct since late October, when Musk bought Twitter and fired its previous leaders.
“We’ve made measurable progress, removing more than 1500 accounts and reducing impressions on this content to nearly zero,” Yoel Roth, who had been Twitter’s public face under Musk’s leadership, tweeted on Thursday. But later on the same day, Roth quit his role as the company’s head of trust and safety, joining the latest exodus of staff.
And in his first email to employees, on Thursday, Musk said the company could go under. More executives have since resigned.
Twitter did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
In the meantime, some users are feeling the impact of the crisis at Twitter.
Vicky Xu, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is among Chinese critics who have been targeted by Chinese state-backed campaigns of harassment on the platform. She had taken a time out from social media since last year due to the flood of hateful, even pornographic, comments. She returned recently only to find things worse: The state-coordinated operations have grown, both in terms of scale and their sophistication.
“What you have is basically industrial level trolling,” Xu told VICE World News. “One account, for example, posted this cartoon depicting me having sex with Australian lawmakers. That account is less than a month old and tweeted 7,000 times, just the same cartoon over and over.”
These campaigns could further escalate under Musk’s paid-verification scheme and promise to scale down content moderation on the platform. Previously, blue checks were meant to indicate users whose identities have been authenticated by the company. Under the new scheme, Twitter is giving it to anyone who pays $8 a month, which immediately led to a torrent of impersonators.
Though Musk described his proposal as “the great leveler” that gives power to the people, some question who would actually benefit from the scheme.
“A fee-based system will impose some costs on bots or inauthentic accounts but a persistent, well-resourced actor will continue to find ways to create, hack or purchase these accounts to create more credible personas,” Zhang said.
On one hand, it could be potentially dangerous for Chinese activists to pay for their blue checks and leave behind a money trail that could be tracked down by authorities. On the other hand, state-backed actors would have the means to amplify their narratives on the site.
“This policy could be legitimizing so many state propagandists from all of the authoritarian states, while denying authentic grassroots voices from those countries that Musk claims to support,” Xu said.
One voice that risks getting drowned out by government trolls is that of Jane Wang, a UK-based advocate for human rights in China.
Wang has been attacked recently by an increased number of spam bots after she highlighted pushback from Chinese citizens against President Xi Jinping’s third term and strict zero-COVID policy. She found at least dozens of accounts impersonating her in October, emerging faster than she could report them.
To distance herself from the fake accounts last year, she applied twice for verification, to no success. The paid scheme does not offer a solution either. “There’s no way the majority of Chinese human rights defenders can afford this,” Wang said. “Verification will carry less weight once it can be bought.”
And if anything, Musk’s past remarks and his decision to lay off the entire human rights team left Wang skeptical of his commitment to protect users’ rights and fight disinformation.
“I would like to see the owner of Twitter set a model as a responsible user,” Wang said. “So far his tweets haven’t been particularly reassuring.”
Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter.