Twitter Suspends Reporter's Account… After He Gets Targeted By Russian Twitter Bots

from the nice-work,-geniuses dept

Over the last few weeks, we’ve written a number of times about how systematically bad internet platforms are at determining how to deal with abuse online. This is not to mock the platforms, even though many of the decisions are comically bad, but to note that this is inevitable in dealing with the scale of these platforms — and to remind people that this is why it’s dangerous to demand that these companies be legally liable for policing speech on their platforms. It won’t end well. Just a few weeks ago, we wrote about how Twitter suspended Ken “Popehat” White for posting an email threat he’d received (Twitter argued he was violating the privacy of the guy threatening him). From there, we wrote about a bunch of stories of Facebook and Twitter punishing people for documenting abuse that they had received.

But this latest story is even slightly crazier, as it appears that abusers were taking advantage of this on purpose. In this case, the story involves Russian Twitter bots. First, the Atlantic Council wrote about Russian Twitter trolls trying to shape a narrative after the Nazi event in Charlottesville. In response, those very same Twitter bots and trolls started bombarding the Twitter feeds of the researchers. And here’s where the story gets even weirder. When Joseph Cox, writing for The Daily Beast, wrote about this (at the link above), those same Twitter bots started targeting him too.

And… that caused Twitter to suspend his account. No, really.

?Caution: This account is temporarily restricted,? a message on my account read Tuesday. ?You?re seeing this warning because there has been some unusual activity from this account,? it continued.

Again, it’s not hard to see how this happened. Cox’s Twitter account suddenly took on a bunch of bot followers, many of whom started retweeting him. From Twitter’s perspective, it’s easy to see how that looks like someone gaming the system — possibly buying up fake followers and fake retweets. But, here, it appears to have been done to target the user, rather than to fake boost him. After all, it’s completely understandable why Twitter would have a system that would seek out situations where a ton of fake followers were suddenly following someone and retweeting them. That would be a clear pattern indicating spam or something nefarious. And, in designing the system, you might think that such a thing would never be used to harm someone — but by building in the mechanism to recognize this is happening and to suspend the account, you’re now creating a weapon that will be gamed.

Cox eventually got his account back and got an apology (“for the inconvenience”) from Twitter. But, once again, for everyone out there demanding that these platforms be more forceful in removing users, or (worse) arguing that there should be legal liability on them if they fail to kick off people expeditiously, be careful what you wish for. You may get it… and not like the results.

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Comments on “Twitter Suspends Reporter's Account… After He Gets Targeted By Russian Twitter Bots”

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Anonymous Coward says:

So, Twitter acting stupidly completely refutes common law?

>>> “for everyone out there demanding that these platforms be more forceful in removing users, or (worse) arguing that there should be legal liability on them if they fail to kick off people expeditiously,”

Your leap there doesn’t even require more than the question.

This problem has long grown without action is much
of the problem. They let trolls run wild on the
notion a platform has NO responsibilty, and now
you’re saying it’s a mess and nothing can be done.

Fine. We’ll just let the Rooskis win, then.
At least they’re logical.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: So, Twitter acting stupidly completely refutes common law?

>> You have no idea what common law is.

Well, ‘splain it to me, then! In detail, but use
short words, please.

Until you do, I’ll stick with notion that common law
requires efforts against vile ad hom. — Though I admit
is some elided in my comment: the base problem with
Twitter, though, is made NO efforts to control the
“platform” until too much bad going on. THEN, Twitter
takes STUPID actions against innocents — a point
which I hold common law forbids.

This piece is premised on Twitter doing wrong in going after the wrong parties.

Wouldn’t you agree that if someone in a bar starts
yelling at you, that the bouncer should make some
effort to determine who started it and does all the bad?
— OH, you DO agree? Then I know SOMETHING true
about common law, don’t I? You are refuted, TROLL.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 So, Twitter acting stupidly completely refutes common law?

As far as I can tell they seem to think it’s the magic ‘I win’ phrase, where all they have to do is claim ‘common law’ and automatically win an argument without providing anything beyond that. Likewise with accusing anyone who they disagree with of being a troll.

Unfortunately for them they aren’t the government, and while that trick may work with ‘national security’ and judges it’s not very effective in comment sections.

Anonymous Coward says:

Twitter's run by ignorant newbies

That’s why it’s heavily infested by bots. That’s why abuse is rampant. And that’s why it suspends the wrong accounts.

Twitter is being beaten like a drum by script kiddies who understand far more about the tactics and strategies of abuse than anyone working for Twitter. Some of us — who are most definitely NOT ignorant or newbies — have tried to explain this to them and help them get a clue. Hasn’t worked: they’re not only incompetent, they’re too arrogant to admit that they’re incompetent.

This particular problem is obvious because it’s being done in heavy-handed fashion. There are far worse problems at Twitter that aren’t nearly so obvious.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Twitter's run by ignorant newbies

Twitter is not run by ignorant newbies. After all, Twitter management cares more about the high-ranking, high-activity “verified” accounts than it does everyone else.

No, Twitter is run by a group of people who want to sell the company as soon as possible and thus have little incentive to curb massive amounts of Twitter activity that bots, Nazis, general scumbags, and a combination of all three—better known as Donald Trump—generate on a daily basis. Only if that activity threatens to drive down the sale price does Twitter management care; even then, they care only enough to make half-hearted gestures toward “fixing” problems that have long plagued the service.

Daydream says:

This actually sounds like Twitter was fairly sensible.

I mean, you pointed it out; an account suddenly gets tons of new followers who follow a mechanical pattern of behavior aggressively retweeting everything all over the place.

It’s not that unreasonable to temporarily suspend the account while looking into that. Key word being ‘temporarily’, since otherwise it’d be easy for trolls to get someone kicked off Twitter by framing them for botspam.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: This actually sounds like Twitter was fairly sensible.

If you’re going to invest the time and manpower to investigate anyway, why suspend first?

"Investigate, then if you find something wrong, suspend" doesn’t take any more effort or any more manpower than "suspend, then investigate, then if you find nothing wrong, revoke the suspension" – but the latter unfairly penalizes people who did nothing wrong, while the former only postpones penalizing people who did do something wrong.

Ninja (profile) says:

I wonder if they could build some sort of reputation system that shielded accounts from takedown. For instance, an account that had 2FA enabled, regular tweeting and steady following base would not be blocked but rather flagged for human review. It’s not a panacea but it should somewhat reduce the harm because these accounts would not be blocked automatically. Same for DMCA.

And amusingly, the solution passes through a human reviewing it, not an algorithm.

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