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Twitter Submitted to Congress Faked ‘Russian Bot List’
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Twitter Submitted to Congress Faked ‘Russian Bot List’

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – July 23, 2018

Twitter is at war with its own users, but this fight reminds one more and more of shadowboxing and offends real people. Its crusade against the so-called 'fake accounts' accused of spreading divisive political content started last October, as a part Congress’s plan to attempt to find any proof of "Russian meddling" in the 2016 elections.

As a result of Twitter's 'search and destroy’ program, the company looked at accounts that generated election-related content and examine whether an account was created in Russia; whether or not the account was associated with a Russian email or phone number; whether the user ever logged in from a Russian IP address; or whether the display name contained Cyrillic characters. Twitter relied in part on an algorithm, but its review also included “internal, manual reviews conducted by Twitter employees,” Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean J. Edgett told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Twitter has confirmed to the Washington Post that it suspended a staggering 70 million accounts within just two months, in May and June, and the purge has continued at the same pace in July.

While some have sounded the alarm that such a sweeping effort can lead to genuine accounts being wiped out from the platform along with fake ones, Twitter's Vice President for Trust and Safety Del Harvey has brushed off the concerns, telling WaPo that the campaign has not made "a ton of impact" on the overall number of the active Tweeters.

The driving force behind the crackdown, Harvey revealed, is that the company has changed its perception of free speech, limiting the freedom of expression to make Twitter a safe space for all.

"One of the biggest shifts is in how we think about balancing free expression versus the potential for free expression to chill someone else's speech. Free expression doesn't really mean much if people don't feel safe," she said.

The social media company also covertly limits the outreach of the tweets it believes to be generated by fake accounts, without notifying the users, by not showing them in Twitter's search results. The practice, known as "shadow banning," has been criticized as a "stealth method of censorship" aimed at silencing unfavorable political opinions.

Through shadow banning, “you have ultimate control,” said Abhinav Vadrevu, a former Twitter software engineer said. “The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone but they don’t know they’ve been banned,  because they keep posting but no one sees their content. So, they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when, in reality, no one is seeing it.”

According to the results of Twitter’s supplemental analysis, “we have identified 13,512 additional accounts, for a total of 50,258 automated accounts that we identified as Russian-linked and Tweeting election-related content during the election period, representing approximately two one-hundredths of a percent (0.016%) of the total accounts on Twitter at the time.”

Despite Twitter's claims that the effort is targeted, there have been reports of innocent victims of this crusade. In May, the Verge reported that many Bulgarian users, who, just like Russians, are writing in Cyrillic, complained that they have had their accounts suspended for some unknown reason. The likely explanation was Twitter's 'bot' criteria, that states that having a name in Cyrillic is a damning enough fact.

However, not only Cyrillic accounts are acknowledged as “Russian bots.” WIRED has been making their own investigation and came up with unexpected results. WIRED independently verified that at least four accounts among more than 20 Twitter users that appeared on Twitter’s list of suspected Russian accounts were created by people with no demonstrable ties to Russia. Their handles were published by a congressional committee, identifying them in some minds as ‘Russian agents.’

Three Americans were suspended from Twitter without warning last year and included in Twitter’s list with no explanation. They lost access to Twitter accounts that they used to maintain their social and career connections.

Hirschfeld lives in Illinois, Franklin in Florida, and Osborne in California, but their account handles were among the 2,752 that Twitter identified as potentially connected to Russia, and submitted to Congress in November of 2017.

Looking at Rebecca Hirschfeld’s account on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, you would have seen that she’s an actress, a huge fan of David Bowie but not so much of  Donald Trump and that she enjoyed anything flavored with pumpkin.

If you looked at Markiya Franklin’s (@internalmemer) account around the same time, you would have gathered that she supports Black Lives Matter and is a K-pop diehard.

Chris Osborne’s (@skatewake1994) account was into surfing and snowboarding with a passion, along with saying a few things about then-candidate Trump.

Hirschfeld, Franklin, and Osborne were in the US around the time of the 2016 election. All say they used Twitter almost exclusively from their phones, through American telecommunications providers that should have shown US IP addresses. Similarly, their email addresses were registered to American providers.

Although Hirschfeld tried several times to reach Twitter after her account was suspended, Twitter Support only provided access to a chatbot. “You can’t talk to anybody,” Hirschfeld said. “You just get the voicemail on these things.” Eventually, Hirschfeld gave up and created a new account. Twitter declined to comment.

Working independently of WIRED, Clemson University professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren have analyzed a database of roughly 3 million tweets from the accounts on Twitter’s list. They’re looking for signs that Twitter erroneously included the accounts of real people to exclude those accounts from their analysis. In all, Linvill and Warren say they have identified more than 20 accounts on Twitter’s list that show patterns of being real people.

Moreover, WIRED’s analysis found at least 63 accounts created between 2009 and 2013 included in the list provided to Congress, well before any indictments against Russia for ‘meddling.’

Their inclusion in Twitter’s list of suspected ‘Russian Bots’ accounts raises questions about Twitter’s investigation into Russian interference, as well as the extent of congressional oversight, WIRED concluded.

Twitter's representatives declined to comment about specific accounts, including why they were suspended or included on the list it gave to Congress.

“We created dedicated teams within Twitter to enhance the quality of the information our users see and to block malicious activity whenever and wherever we find it. Those teams continue to work every day to ensure Twitter remains a safe, open, transparent, and positive platform,” Twitter said in the statement.

USA Really starts investigating Twitter over censorship. We call on all Twitter users whose accounts were suspended after October 2017 to get in touch with USA Really and tell us your story.

Author: USA Really