Apparently sick of being criticised by everyone from US Congress to Seth Rogan for not doing enough to purge its platform of bots, trolls and malicious foreign actors, Twitter has started liberally dropping the ban hammer on suspicious accounts, suspending more than 70 million users over the course of May and June.
The massive purge, which amounts to more than one million accounts getting booted every day, has continued into July according to The Washington Post. The suspension rate is nearly double what the company was doing as recently as October 2017 and may put a dent in the company’s monthly active user numbers, to the dismay of stockholders.
Twitter’s crackdown comes in the wake of criticisms levelled against the company — and other social media platforms such as Facebook — for allowing propaganda and bots to flood the feed, particularly during the 2016 US presidential election.
The companies have been trying to make amends for their shortcomings ever since, initiating new rules for political advertisers and trying to boot as many bots and abusers from the platforms as possible.
There have been some hints at the depth of Twitter’s new suspension efforts in recent months. Earlier this year, a mass purge took out thousands of users, likely bots, who followed popular conservative figures. Twitter also started banning users for hate speech late last year with more voracity than it had in the past.
The targets of the latest mass suspensions appear to be primarily bots and spam accounts. A Twitter spokesperson told Gizmodo that as of May of this year, the company’s automated systems were identifying and challenging about 10 million accounts per month that were believed to be spammers or automated posters.
The company also said it is blocking more than 50,000 potential spam accounts per day from even being created.
But even at that rate, there are a lot of other accounts getting booted from the platform that don’t fit into Twitter’s figures for spam prevention. The company may well be playing catch up from existing accounts that have been operating on the platform for some time, which calls into question just what per cent of Twitter’s userbase is actually just bots.
Earlier this year, Twitter told Congress just five per cent of its active users are fake or spam accounts and less than 8.5 per cent are automation tools or bots, some of which serve legitimate purposes.
Third-party projections put that number much higher. The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence estimates bots make up between nine and 15 per cent of Twitter’s userbase. David Caplan, the co-founder of TwitterAudit, told Gizmodo earlier this year that just 40 to 60 per cent of Twitter accounts are real people.
Twitter’s crackdown could present troubles for the company’s active users maths, which is an important metric for the company when it reports its earnings. The company reported having 336 million active users at the end of the first quarter of this year, and its growth may struggle to outpace the purge, per The Washington Post.
While Del Harvey, the vice president for trust and safety at Facebook, told WaPo that the recent suspensions haven’t had “a ton of impact” on its active user base, the company has been prepping investors for a potential slow down for months.
In its shareholder letter, published in April, the company warned its active user figures "may continue to be negatively impacted in future periods due to our ongoing information quality efforts".
The company’s Chief Financial Officer told investors on the earnings call that “removing spammy and suspicious accounts from Twitter continues to be something that will impact [monthly active users]”.
The purge doesn’t just represent Twitter trying to clean up its act — it’s also a shift in how the company views speech on its platform. While the company once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” Harvey told The Washington Post its now in the business of “balancing free expression versus the potential for free expression to chill someone else’s speech”.
That’ll probably go over well with its users.