Twitter’s crackdown on fake and automated accounts could backfire

For some time now, Twitter has been accused of being too soft on trolls, spam, and fake accounts. But the service seems to be trying to make up for it in a hurry: According to a report this weekend from The Washington Post, anonymous sources say Twitter has ramped up its suspension of fake accounts: It is now suspending as many as one million every day, and has shut down more than 70 million since April. It’s a step Twitter should probably have taken years ago, so perhaps it’s better late than never, but the process could also backfire on the company in a number of ways.

One reason the company hasn’t taken concerted action against such fakes in the past is they help to boost the service’s user numbers, which makes it look more popular, and that in turn satisfies investors. This explains 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 cut into Twitter’s user numbers. Twitter’s chief financial officer sought to reassure them, however:

Whether most of the accounts suspended so far were inactive or not, these 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).

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One interesting aspect of the Post story is that a group of Twitter employees concerned about trolls and fakes appears to have mounted a guerrilla campaign within the company to get higher ups to understand the scope of the problem. This “white hat” campaign, code-named Operation Megaphone, remained secret from Twitter executives up to and including head of trust and safety Del Harvey—something that says a lot about the dysfunctional internal politics at the company.

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 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 Post report was published, President Donald Trump tweeted:

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.