Twitter Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) has apologized after suspending accounts critical of the Chinese government at a sensitive time for the country. More than 100 accounts belonging to Chinese-based activists, college students, human rights lawyers, and nationalists were suspended ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. The approaching of the anniversary has been accompanied by a tightening of censorship across the country.
June 4 marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. At the time, students and workers occupying the square in Beijing in a pro-democracy protest were gunned down and killed by communist authorities. Discussions of the protest are taboo in China and the Chinese government has invested a lot of money into developing tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown.
Some critics of Twitter’s action claimed that the mass deletion of accounts was proof that the Chinese government had successfully targeted users of the platform. Twitter is banned in China, but some Chinese users have been able to get around the ban by using virtual private network software to post. Twitter has become such an issue for the Chinese government that last year, the country created a special police force dedicated to finding, detaining, and interrogating Twitter users, then making them delete their tweets.
Twitter claimed that the action was taken as part of efforts to target accounts engaging in “platform manipulation” and didn’t originate from a request from the Chinese government. According to the company’s statement on its Public Policy Twitter feed, the accounts were suspended as part of its efforts to “protect the health of the public conversation.” It said that such actions sometimes “catch false positives or we make errors,” and that it was working to “ensure we overturn any errors.” The company also said users whose accounts were deleted should be able to recover them.