Bots have long been a scourge of Twitter, ranging from the irritating but largely harmless (like the one that retweeted mentions of cheese) to the potentially destructive (as in the Russian election meddling bots described in the indictment special counsel Robert Mueller released Friday). In fact, researchers at Indiana University estimate that between 9 and 15 percent of active Twitter accounts are bots. Now Twitter is ramping up its efforts to rein in bot and spam-enabled mischief on the platform.
On Wednesday the company unveiled guidelines curbing coordination between accounts. Twitter hopes these steps will help counteract manipulation of its platform to influence political debates, especially at the hands of Russian actors. Except in the case of emergencies, users are now no longer allowed to simultaneously post, like, or retweet identical content through multiple accounts. Having a group of accounts follow someone is also off the table, as is automating any sort of cross-posting, even if users have given an app permission to do so. Twitter has set a March 23 deadline for bringing accounts into compliance with the new policies, and has also removed features that allow users to orchestrate actions across accounts from its TweetDeck app.
Yoel Roth, an API policy manager at Twitter, writes in a blog post on the changes, “These changes are an important step in ensuring we stay ahead of malicious activity targeting the crucial conversations taking place on Twitter—including elections in the United States and around the world.”
This announcement comes on the heels of what looks to be a suspensions rampage, as the platform locked thousands of accounts between Tuesday and Wednesday. It seems that Twitter intended to targeted bots, though a couple of flesh-and-blood users contacted Gizmodo to claim that they too had been swept up in the purge. A number of prominent conservatives reported that they had lost legions of followers overnight, prompting the #TwitterLockOut hashtag to gain major traction among rightwing users accusing the company of ideological cleansing. For example, Politico reports that Project Veritas provocateur James O’Keefe, who implied that the crackdown was motivated by liberal politics, lost about 2,400 followers. The social media tool Crowdtangle further indicates that InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson was down 3,400 followers in the same span of time, and Fox News commentator Charles Payne down 1,500 followers.
Meanwhile, #TwitterLockOut has been the most popular hashtag among suspected propaganda bots over the past 48 hours, according to the Hamilton68 Russian influence tracking tool.
A Twitter spokesperson was tight-lipped when the Washington Post inquired about the specifics of the purge, merely noting that the company is continuing its work to remove fake accounts. She added that moderators are reaching out to accounts exhibiting suspicious behavior and requesting phone numbers to ensure that they’re being controlled by actual people.