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Twitter ramps up fight against abuse and malicious bots

Jun 27 2018 05:15
Selina Wang, Bloomberg

Twitter said it’s making changes to combat abuse and malicious automated accounts, including requiring more authentication for new users, in an effort to address complaints that social networking services have allowed harassment and manipulation to run rampant.

For the first time, Twitter is going to require confirmation of an email address or phone number to sign up for an account. The company, which promotes itself as a place for public conversation over news and events, has long been criticised for making it too easy for malicious actors to create multiple spam accounts.

Twitter said it would work with experts to make sure the changes don’t harm users in high-risk environments where anonymity is important.

Since the revelations that Russian troll accounts sowed discord on social-media platforms during the 2016 US presidential election, Twitter has released a series of updates to clamp down on suspicious activity. Earlier this year, Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey acknowledged the San Francisco-based company inadvertently helped spread misinformation, harassment and manipulation via bots, or automated accounts. Last week, Twitter acquired security startup Smyte to help fight online spam, abuse and fraud.

“These issues are felt around the world, from elections to emergency events and high-profile public conversations,” Twitter said Tuesday in a blog post. “As we have stated in recent announcements, the public health of the conversation on Twitter is a critical metric by which we will measure our success in these areas.”

Problematic accounts 

The company is also developing machine learning algorithms that proactively find problematic accounts, rather than waiting until someone flags the bad behaviour. In May, its system identified more than 9.9 million potentially spam or automated accounts a week, an increase from 3.2 million a week last September, Twitter said.

The average number of spam reports a day has dropped from 25 000 in March to about 17 000 in May.

Twitter is also reducing the visibility of suspicious accounts. A warning sign will be placed on these accounts, and new users will be unable to follow them.

The company said it’s conducting an audit to ensure that every account created on Twitter has passed a security check to prevent automated signups. The change has already stopped more than 50,000 spam signups a day, Twitter said. Many of these accounts bulk followed high-profile accounts. As result of this action, some people may see their follower counts drop, according to the company.

“Social media is playing an ever-increasing role in our daily lives but the rise in toxic content, bots and spam is eroding trust, the lifeblood of a healthy society,” said Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever. “I am very pleased that Twitter is taking a concrete stand against the hordes of fake accounts and bots that are polluting the system.”

Unilever was among the major brand companies that threatened in February to pull advertising from social media networks, including Twitter, because of a rise in hate speech, abusive content and fake news. Bloomberg LP produces TicToc, a global breaking news network for the Twitter service.

Critics have said that Twitter prioritises user and revenue growth over efforts to fight spam and manipulation.

A former employee told Bloomberg last year that in early 2015 the company discovered a vast number of accounts, most of which were inactive or fake, with IP addresses in Russia and Ukraine, but failed to delete them. Lawmakers berated Twitter for how long it has taken the company to discover the millions of tweets from Russian-linked accounts that meddled in the U.S. elections.

The changes announced Tuesday reflect Dorsey’s effort to make it a priority to clean up the platform as Twitter seeks to increase engagement and the number of users. Among the earlier plans is to create a “transparency center” to show how much political campaigns spend on advertising. Earlier this year Dorsey asked the public to propose solutions to make the social network a nicer place by measuring “collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation".

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