Anne-Marie Brady is one of the world’s top China-watchers. Her sardonic, perceptive takes on Beijing’s influence operations and the West’s mostly weak-kneed response have earned her 20,000 Twitter followers. For most of yesterday any outsider trying to visit her at @anne_mariebrady was stopped by a warning screen. Get past that and some recent tweets were “unavailable”. Searches for her drew a blank: she had become a digital unperson. She was also locked out of her account, so she could no longer post any further tweets, message people — or complain to Twitter.
Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, reckons her “crime” is to have mocked the muted international participation in the party’s centenary celebrations this month. Ten years ago, at the 90th birthday party, foreign leaders showered the regime with praise and congratulations. Almost the only messages this time came from Moscow and Cairo. Among her takes on this was a link to Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.
Twitter has not explained what prompted this. Brady received only an automated warning that she may have “violated” the social media platform’s rules. But the decision probably results from a concerted campaign by the Chinese Communist Party’s online agents. Enough complaints usually trigger an automated block. After I had stoked a furore on Twitter and sent umpteen complaints, her account was restored. Less prominent victims of Chinese censorship would have scantier chances of redress. But the episode highlights the way in which the internet, which we once hailed as a haven for free speech, now makes us much less safe.
It is quite right for Twitter and similar platforms to have the equivalent of a fire alarm, allowing other users to highlight child abuse images, say, or threats of violence. It is reasonable for part of the process to be automated. Much of life operates on the principle that it is better to inconvenience the innocent briefly and mildly than to allow villains free rein. However, China and other adversaries exploit that fair-mindedness, and the potential of technology. With minimal cost, effort and risk, thin-skinned dictatorships can unleash a flood of automated complaints that trigger Twitter’s response.
Twitter could punish those who raise false alarms, for example by suspending or blocking their accounts. But that would be too much trouble. The company’s main interest is in protecting itself from lawsuits, by ensuring that potentially illegal material does not get published. Maintaining democratic debate is much less important. Similarly, LinkedIn, which operates in China, puts a local block on users (like me) whose profiles use banned words such as “Tibet” and “Tiananmen Square”.
Brady is undaunted. She is used to harassment from China. This may encourage more people to buy her books, or follow her on Twitter. But the episode highlights a potentially fatal weakness in our system. Our freedoms, the rule of law and safety all depend on technology that is developed and run on murky and selfish lines. Twitter, like Facebook and Google, is banned in China. By contrast, these tech giants flourish in freedom. Their intellectual property and contracts are protected by laws made not by bureaucratic fiat but by elected legislators. These companies vigorously lobby governments and lawmakers on issues such as privacy regulation. They ventilate their grievances in the media (good luck with that in China). They readily go to court to defend their interests too (ditto). But these behemoths do not exert themselves to protect the system that enables their success. They choose convenience, growth and profit instead.
We already see the consequences of that in the epidemic of petty fraud perpetrated via misleading text messages and emails. This works only because our banks, phone companies and internet companies allow it. They could spend money on ensuring that anomalous payments go through extra checks. They could investigate those opening the accounts used by fraudsters. They could make it impossible to buy bogus web addresses or make phone calls that seem to come from reputable numbers. Such measures would be costly and cumbersome, they maintain. True — but a much greater cost lands on us, the victims of the frauds that they enable.
Democracy may be next. We rely on emails, websites, search engines, mobile phones and social media at all levels, from national campaigns to private messaging. But these systems are wide open to attack, be it disruption, fakery or snooping. Someone has recently been using “deepfakes” — synthetic audio and video — to impersonate, very convincingly, an aide to the jailed Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. The caller then tricked politicians in the Baltic states and Ukraine into giving away confidences and making embarrassing remarks. A prank? Maybe. But eastern Europe is a testing ground for such tactics. They will be deployed here soon.
The endemic weaknesses in our technology put us all at the mercy of mischievous and malevolent outsiders. They can spy on us, distort our perception of reality, and shape our decision-making. We have perilously little time left to change this, and our foes will strive to ensure that we fail.