Twitter finally ramps up its crackdown on fake and automated accounts

For years now, Twitter has been accused of being too soft on trolls, spam, and fake accounts. But the service appears to be trying to make up for lost time: According to a report from The Washington Post, based on anonymous sources with knowledge of the company’s inner workings, Twitter has dramatically ramped up the rate at which it suspends fake accounts. It is now suspending as many as one million every day, and has shut down over 70 million since April. But the process could backfire.

One reason why the company hasn’t taken concerted action against such fakes in the past is that they boost the service’s user numbers, which makes it look more popular, and therefore satisfies investors. That helps explain why Twitter’s share price dropped by as much as 8 percent on Monday, the first trading opportunity after the Post report came out: Investors were concerned that weeding out fakes might hit Twitter’s user numbers. But Twitter’s chief financial officer sought to reassure them:

Whether most of the accounts suspended so far were largely inactive or not, the moves are still likely to have an impact on Twitter’s user base, and market watchers say that could trim some of the recent enthusiasm about the stock. If the inactive accounts were the low-hanging fruit, then future suspensions could have even more impact on its numbers, as Twitter has to suspend some of the more active accounts (assuming it wants to continue its campaign to root them out).

One interesting aspect of the Post story is that a group of Twitter employees concerned about trolls and fakes appears to have mounted a kind of guerilla campaign within the company to get it to see the dangers of allowing such accounts to run rampant. The story describes a “white hat” attempt to call attention to the problem, and says the project—code-named Operation Megaphone—remained secret from Twitter executives, including head of trust and safety Del Harvey.

“The name of the operation referred to the virtual megaphones — such as fake accounts and automation — that abusers of Twitter’s platforms use to drown out other voices. The program, also known as a white hat operation, was part of a broader plan to get the company to treat disinformation campaigns by governments differently than it did more traditional problems such as spam, which is aimed at tricking individual users as opposed to shaping the political climate.”

Another reason Twitter  might have been reluctant to pursue an all-out campaign against fakes and trolls is that doing so could open the company up to further charges of being biased against conservatives, something it has already been fighting hard to deny at private dinners between CEO Jack Dorsey and prominent conservative commentators and celebrities. If someone showed that many of the suspended accounts appear to be right-wing, that would give critics even more ammunition.

Meanwhile, at least one conservative Twitter user believes the company should use its expanded suspension powers on other kinds of fakes, such as the “fake news” purveyors he believes are covering his administration unfairly, including The New York Times and the Post. After the Washington Post report was published, president Donald Trump tweeted:

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