At last it seems that Twitter has decided to act decisively to tackle its biggest problem: the fake accounts, bots, trolls and other unpleasant species that have come to infest the social network. The company suspended some seventy million accounts since May, more than one million a day, and it looks set to continue the purge throughout July.
All this comes at a time when Twitter is enjoying its best period of growth for some time, although the cleanup will make a serious dent in its user numbers. The purchase of Smyte, suggests that the company has clarified its position on free speech of expression: “the free speech wing of the free speech party” has realized that there are limits, and that it is essential that one person’s right to say what they like doesn’t mean silencing somebody else. As Del Harvey, the company’s VP of trust & safety for more than eight years, admits, “freedom of expression does not mean much if people don’t feel safe.”
It now seems to have dawned on the company that while shareholders like rapid growth, it means nothing in the long term if it comes from trolls, fake followers farms, false accounts and bots. It’s a similar problem to that of companies with huge but totally useless databases: in short, size isn’t everything.
Twitter’s appearance before the US Congress to explain false accounts based in Russia to influence the 2016 presidential elections may have been a wake-up call. Better to have a smaller network of genuine users or bots that do something useful rather than to rely on short-term growth; better to lose some users and maintain a network where people can feel free to share things without coming under attack and where they simply end up taking a passive role as a lurker.
If Twitter has finally seen the light, then that can only be a good thing. Can it eliminate all trolls and false accounts? Perhaps not. The company is now engaged in a struggle with users who create multiple accounts, using Blade Runner-style detection systems based on algorithms and diagnostics to root out robots copying human behavior, an arms race between the artificial intelligence necessary for an account to appear genuine versus the artificial intelligence necessary to discover them.
Cleaning up Twitter will be a good investment in the long term, and hopefully will free it of the trolls who insult and threaten people, a site where expressing an opinion no longer requires taking out life insurance. Twitter was becoming toxic, which is a sad reflection on human nature, but something that other social networks are going to have to address as well.
(En español, aquí)