Twitter gets tough on auto-tweeting bots

Saturday, 28 July, 2018

Following on from widespread criticism of its platform Twitter has announced it has removed more than 143,000 apps from the messaging service. Twitter said that it had been removing the apps since April in a crackdown on malicious activity from automated accounts. No details were released on what apps were removed.

Twitter’s crackdown targeted the processes of its Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that developers use to make automated Twitter posts.

We’re committed to providing access to our platform to developers whose products and services make Twitter a better place.

However, we recognise the challenges facing Twitter and the public, from spam and malicious automation to surveillance and invasions of privacy, we’re taking additional steps to ensure that our developer platform works in service of the overall health of conversation on Twitter.

We do not tolerate the use of our APIs to produce spam, manipulate conversations or invade the privacy of people using Twitter.

- Rob Johnson: Senior Product Management Director, Twitter

Now any developer looking to create a Twitter app will have to go through a new, tighter application process including providing details of how they will use the service.

The very nature of Twitter is to spread information at high-speed and with little oversight. It is what brought the company to prominence in the first place and it’s defining moment came back in 2009 when Janis Krum tweeted about US Airways Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson River.

It changed everything. Suddenly the world turned its attention because we were a source of news. And it wasn’t us, it was this person in the boat using the service.

- Jack Dorsey: Co-founder, Twitter

Twitter was also crucial during the Arab Spring when it became a platform to raise political issues facing the region and it aided in organising protests during the uprising.

But it soon became apparent that the lack of central control and the speed of delivery had inherent problems that Twitter had not foreseen.

The impact of fake news was born. By 2016, Twitter was infected with fake and malicious news and it became a propaganda tool during the controversial US presidential election. During it’s latest investigation Twitter found more than 2,000 Russia-backed accounts that had tried to influence the election.

Hamilton 68, a website that monitors and tracks Russian influence on Twitter noted that in recent times they had latched on to gun crime and mass shootings in the US. For Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, the goal of these tweets isn’t to advocate gun control but simply to sow discord.

Twitter can be an incredibly useful tool for reporters or anybody in a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, misinformation is the flipside.

- Bret Schafer: research analyst, Alliance for Securing Democracy

Twitter has committed to expanding its team, build more tools and commit more resources for users to combat the bad actors. Recently, it floated the idea of creating a fake news reporting feature and using machine-learning to weed out suspicious spam-like messages.

One feature introduced in the US has been to broadcast local TV news next to the timeline in an attempt to avoid misinformation in breaking stories.

Not all automated accounts are malicious. Some are designed to tweet emergency services alerts, advertise public events or the release of the latest Netflix film. And in the end, it is us users that are the main drivers for spreading news.

But as some critics have said that while Twitter does not want to be the arbiter of truth it does need to take responsibility for safeguarding the community from falsehood and disinformation. As one said ‘if it isn’t the arbiter of truth, it should at least try not to be the disseminator of lies.’

Image: Frederick Burr Opper

Tim Bamford author picture


Tim is a veteran freelance journalist writing extensively on internet news and cybersecurity.