Twitter: Is it a Trap?

Twitter has been a boon for the Chinese dissident community. It is, in essence, an open forum outside the reach of GFW censorship. It is a place where Tan Zuoren’s sentence can be spread through an entire community within a couple minutes of it being handed down, a place where Ai Weiwei can respond to that sentence by saying “F*ck your mother!” over and over again without fear of being censored. But is it, as the great Admiral Ackbar would say, a trap?

Twitter is outside the Great Firewall, but the fact that authorities cannot censor it does not mean that they cannot see it, monitor it, or use what people say on it as evidence against them. In fact, I think it’s fair to assume Chinese authorities are monitoring Twitter. The fact that it is blocked in the first place means they’re very aware of what it can be used for, and they’re certainly not likely to ignore that.

Furthermore, the very nature of outside-the-GFW micro-blogging (and you can add Google Buzz to the list of services like that Chinese dissidents are using, at least for the moment) provides a pretty unprecedented opportunity for would-be prosecutors to compile evidence of thoughtcrime. Here is a service that suggests you publish your every thought to the public, where it is then preserved forever (nothing is ever really deleted on the internet). At best, it encourages banality en masse, but at worst it’s a huge data aggregator about the opinions and contacts of many of China’s dissidents. If hacking Ai Weiwei’s gmail wasn’t enough, Twitter provides them up-to-the minute updates on Ai’s thoughts, and a tangible list of people whose ideas he finds interesting enough to follow. And to get this information, they don’t need to do anything more than type in a URL. No hacking required.

Some of you, no doubt, are already accusing me of paranoia. After all, Twitter doesn’t publish Ai’s thoughts (or anyone’s thoughts) unless they type them up somewhere and hit send, but I do believe there is still a point to be made. Writing is a process, and even writing something as short as a blog requires sitting down for a moment and, presumably, reflecting a little bit on one’s ideas, how they should be worded, and whether or not they should be published at all. Of course, you can do that with your Twitter, just as you can type and post without any reflection whatsoever on a blog, but Twitter systemically encourages constant updating, which, to my mind, greatly increases the possibility that one posts something stupid, incorrect, or dangerous without giving it the proper reflection first.

We haven’t heard much about tweets used as evidence against dissidents in criminal cases yet, but given Twitter’s popularity in the dissident community, and the other types of electronic evidence cited in recent cases like Tan Zuoren’s, how far away can the day be when someone is convicted of “inciting to subvert state power” for something they said via their Twitter account?

I want to know what you think, though: Is Twitter any more dangerous than blogging, or are we being paranoid technophobes?

(Note, also, that Google Buzz seems to be even more problematic. Absurdity, Allegory, and China wrote a great post about it, and has also noted that given the way it violates all kinds of privacy regulations, Google is probably about to get its face sued off.)

0 thoughts on “Twitter: Is it a Trap?”

  1. Here is a service that suggests you publish your every thought to the public

    Here is a service that suggests you publish your every TWISTED thought to the public.


  2. Custer,

    There are millions of children sleeping on the street in Phillipines, why didnt dissidents complain ?

    There are millions of child labor in Brazil, why didnt dissidents complain ?

    There are 50 millions of child labor in India, why didnt dissidents complain ?

    Are those dissident fighting for the right of chinese people or their right of messing up with others ?


  3. But that is not what you care, isnt it ? though all of them are about Children.

    May I ask what you are fighting for ? what are those dissident fighting for ?

    Overthrowing CCP ? the future of China ? THEIR right of pooping in front of other people’s houses ? or what ?


    1. Excellent point, Wahaha. We should all either take on every single injustice worldwide simultaneously or ignore them all.

      Any comments on the actual content of the post, or do you just want to talk about the downsides of democracy in India for a while?


  4. Hmm… no one’s forcing anybody to blog/twitter. As for surveillance, the CCP probably watches everything. Twitter, Fanfou, or anything else is fair game.


  5. Like in many online communities, most Chinese Twitter users are anonymous. Their identity might still be effectively obtained if they use the same ID everywhere though.

    But that’s not the point, I think those who dare to openly speak against the authority must be prepared for all possible consequences. You choose to fight tyranny, you put your life at stake. Being a dissident IS dangerous, no matter if you use Twitter or not.


  6. Hmmmm… @C. Custer, do you think things the government may see on Twitter would ever incite them to bring charges against someone? I feel like the government focuses on the dissidents that are high profile enough that they’ve done much bolder things than post twitter comments. I’m sure that if the government saw something like “Demonstration in sanlitun, 3 o’clock,” they’d act, but as long as people just use it as a forum for complaints, the government may just keep an eye on it but otherwise leave it be.

    Maybe the government figures that few enough people use Twitter in China that, though comments may circle among particular sets of the young and tech-savvy, what people say there will never catch fire with the population in general. In fact, I could see the government wanting to avoid drawing any kind of attention to twitter in order to keep it from becoming more well-known in China.


  7. But that’s not the point, I think those who dare to openly speak against the authority must be prepared for all possible consequences. You choose to fight tyranny, you put your life at stake. Being a dissident IS dangerous, no matter if you use Twitter or not.

    Like the white house worker claimed that she admired Mao.


  8. Custer,

    This forum is not about China, as there 1.3 billion people in China.

    The talks on Liu, Ai etc like people being stuck in a revolving door, never leave the building , never enter the building.


  9. @ Dylz, of course, my concern is that AFTER something has drawn the gov’t’s attention to someone, they can then use Twitter to compile “evidence”. After all, what Tan Zuoren did to attract attention was his Sichuan earthquake investigation, but he was convicted of subversion based on an email he sent about 6/4, and an interview he gave….


  10. Colonel Custer!

    great site!

    long time reader first time commentor

    I love Ai WeiWei, ever see thoses pictures of him fingering Tiananmen-Gugong, and the white house! CLASSIC he is one of my heroes!

    his father to the poet,

    hesitant to join the Twit corps, it is too new, too… well I cant even think of a word in english or Chinese to say how I feel about being a Twit… nonetheless QQ, CrAcKbOoK, ChinaSMACK and half a dozen other chinese forums are far more robust.

    I have been blogging about china now for 9.5 years, never been caught or found an email in my inbox from the Internet PSB, never had a problem finding a proxy,

    But now, am a little worried, its a tough year to be a “internet artist” with google, wireLESS in xinjiang and all,

    I tend to think agree with the Admiral,

    but I would call it!


    I would like to put a picture of Jabba the Hutt, attached to this comment,
    his image comes to mind, when I think about some of these Party Sectectaries!!!

    until next time,


  11. Twitter doesn’t seem totally safe for China’s political adversaries but I think the risk is minimal if you use common sense with what personal information you reveal, in addition to being behind a VPN. For domestic snooping, Buzz seems more vulnerable since it’s incorporated into Gmail which millions of people use everyday and don’t use a proxy to access from within China because they don’t have to. It seems like it would be difficult for anyone to unequivocally match a tweet with an actual person, assuming that Twitter doesn’t divulge its users information and you’re mindful about what personal information you disclose.


  12. I highly doubt the Chinese government (if you insist on viewing it as a single faceless entity for some reason) care about what anybody thinks. It seems that some people here in West are far too convinced of the myth of totalitarianism and of the similarity of 1984 with any and all non-Western democratic states.

    So unless you’re making comments like “let’s assassinate the local official and run to the US embassy for easy green cards”, “they” really have no reason to care.

    But if you had constructive feedback to give, who knows, the Chinese government seems pretty conviced the internet is an effective means of figuring out what the Chinese people want, so they may even take you seriously.


  13. If you want to read more about the downside of information & communication technologies for would-be cyber dissidents, make sure to follow the writings of Evgeny Morozov. He’s been writing about how, for instance, the Iranian Moussavi supporters have gotten themselves into hot water through use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. (He also coined the deliciously cynical phrase “slacktivism” to describe the armchair cheerleading for various causes that people engage in via Facebook et al — a kind of cyber-bumperstickerism that I find really pathetic in most cases).

    To me it’s astonishing how cavalier some critics of the CCP are on Twitter, making no effort to disguise their identities, making their network of friends totally transparent (you can use any of a number of Twitter tools to see the extent of interconnectedness, friend overlap, number of @ messages back and forth, etc) and leaving a completely searchable history. Anyone with a serious anti-CCP agenda would be an idiot to use Twitter. Among Chinese users, the service obviously self-selects for people of a very liberal persuasion, which I like of course; I can imagine they enjoy being able to communicate with one another without nasty, stridently nationalistic fenqing lurking about. But they do a lot of preaching to the choir, and I wonder what it does except reinforce the illusion that by voicing their indignation about the GFW and various acts of CCP on Twitter they’re actually accomplishing something. More likely they’re jeopardizing people in their network.

    I was actually included in a Twitter List put together by one Chinese user with the title “Dissident.” I shit you not. This genius – – also has lists with names like tibet, taiwan, antigfw, christian, china64 and charter08.


  14. I think this is much bigger than just Tweeting to criticizes the CCP. Many of these Chinese blogger’s and tweeters have put their money where their mouth is by traveling to document the injustice that the CCP commits at protests, dissident trials, and just the other day at the homecoming of Feng Zhenghu. They have been able to use Twitter to go to many events that the CCP would much rather keep quite. They stream live pictures and tweet, showing the truth about what is really happening.
    Many of these same blogger’s including Ai Wei Wei were just invited to American Embassies around China by the US State Dept to watch and participate in Hillary Clinton’s Internet Speech. They are now on the radar of so many world wide including the US Government which is good for them.
    I believe they are smart enough to know that the Government can and does watch every word they write and, and think it is easy to criticize them if you are sitting doing nothing to improve the Human Rights condition in China yourself.
    I honor them and am inspired by them.
    In 1887 Wei Jingsheng did what he could do by writing on a wall, in 1989 the Students of Tiananmen did what they could do for their time, and now 2010 these young Chinese are using the newest technology to continue the fight.
    I call these Blogger’s and Tweeters the next generation of brave Chinese fighting for their freedom which they justly deserve.


  15. @Diane, I don’t think Colonel Custer was making any kind of disparaging remark about these activists, but was just raising a concern he had *for* them, that they may be building a a case file against themselves by tweeting criticisms and comments. It’s a conceptual question about the safety of tweeting out against repressive regimes compared to more traditional blogging.

    A related question: is tweeting worth the risks that might come about because of it? Blogs are very mainstream, even in China, while twitter is still largely unknown, so by tweeting their remarks I fear they may be drawing unwanted attention to themselves from the authorities without actually getting the word out to a wider Chinese audience. As @Kaiser points out, it’s rather echo-chamberish.

    Then again, as @Diane points out, they have been able to alert each other about events that they would otherwise not get the chance to witness or take part in. This leads back to my original point, that if twitter become more popular in China the authorities could get much more proactive about policing the people who use it.


  16. @Dylz Yes I guess I was commenting more to the post before me.
    I truly believe that all that tweet in China are very well aware that they are watched and in my mind are hero’s for taking the huge risk.


  17. I don’t think it is a trap but an issue that there is not more site like Twitter. If there was a dozen or more like there are blog services would not the shear number overwhelm a governments ability to monitor them all?


  18. C. Custer said…
    > what Tan Zuoren did to attract attention was his Sichuan earthquake
    > investigation, but he was convicted of subversion based on an email he sent
    > about 6/4, and an interview he gave…

    It’s a bit of twisted logic, but at least convictions based on tweets and such are better than people just disappearing into the dark of night? I don’t think a lack of evidence has been a major roadblock to the Chinese authorities in the past — maybe the Twitter bravado is a sign of the strengthening of the Rule of Law.


  19. Hi, great site which I have just come across. What is fascinating to me is that I am behind the GFW and seem able to access this without a vpn/proxy….


  20. @ Europhobe: Yes, although don’t expect it to last. We’ve been blocked by the GFW twice before, and one of these days it will happen again permanently, we’re probably just too small for them to care right now.


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