After a significant amount of criticism, Twitter has decided to address its “bot” problem.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election and now in the lead-up to the 2018 election, the issues regarding false information spreading and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) interference have been making headlines on a regular basis. Back in January, Twitter admitted that more that 50,000 bots attempted to confuse American voters prior to the presidential election. This number doesn’t include all of the bots on twitter, estimated to be in the millions, but Twitter’s crackdown is meant to reduce the number of bots overall.
In order to reduce the number of bots and thus the influence of bots, Twitter posted new rules regarding applications which allow users to post from or control multiple accounts simultaneously. These rules are a clarification and extension of rules posted a few weeks ago. If the owners of these applications or the users do not comply with the new rules by March 23, 2018, Twitter reserves the right to enforce their rules through disciplinary actions such as suspension of accounts or application services. Twitter is also changing its own account management platform, TweetDeck, to reflect their policy changes. Accounts can still post via software (what powers bots), but after the effective date they may only post through a single account and they may not post misleading or abusive content
Although the pressure is on social media networks such as Twitter to address the problems that allowed Russian interference, not everyone is happy about the new policies. Researchers, for example, are a fan of using bots for spreading positive information on social media, but that of course requires a cooperative use of bots that doesn’t result in abuse.
Another group that is upset with the solution is conservatives. Citing free speech issues, many conservative users opined that Twitter was “purg[ing]” their followers and conservative accounts and general. They even started a couple trending hashtags: #TwitterLockOut and #twitterpurge.
In the last month alone, Twitter shut down more than a million accounts.
Despite conservatives claims that they are being unfairly targeted, research shows that conservative-leaning accounts tweeted fake accounts thirty-six times as much as liberal-leaning accounts, and Twitter assured its users that its actions were apolitical. Still, many conservative users feel they are being singled out, and some have taken legal action against Twitter over protection of free speech. Ironically, prior to Twitter’s recent actions, the pro-Russian bots were programmed to take advantage of Twitter’s old anti-bot policies by forcing Twitter to suspend liberal accounts tweeting about specific topics.
Another legal issue accompanying the bot problem is the incidence of bots falsely taking on the profiles of real people. As part of an investigation, the New York Times uncovered one company (Devumi) which owns (or owend) at least 3.5 million fake accounts, at least 55,000 of which used the actual personal details of real Twitter users. This personal information usually included, but was not limited to, name, photos, and hometowns, and many of the stolen identities were that of minors. This large-scale identity theft presents a more politically neutral but equally important consequence of the bot takeover, and provides another reason for Twitter to get its bot problem in check.
Although Twitter’s recent announcement and actions are proving controversial to some, it seems that the company is finally attempting to take real action against abuses of the platform. Whether or not their new policies are successful in solving their bot and social media identity problem, however, is yet to be determined.