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Thoughts on Twitter's "bot purge"

By Scott Tibbs, March 9, 2018

I woke up a couple weeks ago and saw that I had lost fifteen followers on Twitter overnight, and wondered what I said to make people unfollow me. I quickly realized that Twitter had disabled thousands of accounts in a purge of alleged "bots." Conservatives were outraged, and interest in alternative social media became more prominent.

First, let me be clear. I do not believe that Twitter was conducting an ideological purge of conservatives. Twitter's moderation practices may be slanted, but the mass purge was more likely the result of incompetence than malice. Twitter has been under intense pressure for the last year to clean up alleged "Russian influence" on the platform, so they sought to remove suspected bots. Whether they wrote a program to find and remove suspected bots or whether human moderators flagged and disabled suspected bots, Twitter removed a large number of legitimate accounts run by real people. It has been said that we should not attribute malice to something explained by stupidity, and that applies here.

Still, it was a terrible business practice. Fairly or not, Twitter is seen as biased against conservatives. A ham-fisted, poorly executed effort to disable "bots" that also disables the accounts of thousands of real conservative users will only feed that perception. Even if you take ideology out of it, forcing people to provide a phone number to unlock their accounts is a way to annoy a large percentage of your user base who have not violated the Terms of Service and were surprised to find themselves locked out.

Of course, it should be pointed out that Twitter's terms of service explicitly allows for bots, within certain guidelines. Perhaps if Twitter is worried about bots, they should not have explicitly allowed for them in the user guidelines. Twitter is now backtracking to solve a problem they themselves created.

What worries me is not the incompetence or even the bias of Twitter. After #ReleaseTheMemo trended on Twitter, Democratic members of Congress called on the social media platform to find and purge alleged "Russian bots." How much of this purge was fear over what government might to do them, especially if the Democrats take power? For members of Congress to openly pressure a social media company to censor opinions is quite frightening. We can escape a poorly-run social media company by going elsewhere, but censorship by the federal government is much more dangerous.