Twitter can solve two problems at once
Twitter's existential problem with fake anonymous accounts would seem like an especially difficult one to solve. But a separate controversy holds the key to a holistic solution. It's a rare chance for a company to solve two big challenges in one fell swoop — if only Twitter can summon the courage.
After weeding out 2,752 accounts linked to a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, a bigger problem has emerged in Britain. Research by Sasha Talavera and Tho Pham at Swansea University and Yuriy Gorodnichenko at University of California, Berkeley, claims to have discovered 156,000 accounts that mainly spewed pro-Russian and anti-Ukraine propaganda, then switched to the subject of Brexit days before the UK referendum. Another study, by Marco Bastos and Dan Mercea of London's City University, claims to have discovered 13,493 accounts that tweeted about Brexit only to disappear after the vote. Although the output of these bot accounts constituted only a tiny share of all the millions of Brexit tweets out there, it was seen hundreds of millions of times.
Twitter, as it did after American legislators got involved, likely will remove some of the accounts. But the overall problem remains. Twitter is awash in anonymous accounts with no end in sight.
Separately, Twitter has faced criticism for bestowing its blue verification checkmark on too many people, albeit real, named ones. For example, white nationalists Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer were, until yesterday, verified users.
Here, Twitter chose to act — even though it did not have to. It changed its verification policy after users pointed that out, acknowledging that “verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance”.
The new policy warns users that if they want the blue badge, they must behave “on and off Twitter”, refraining from “promoting hate and/or violence” and withholding support from organisations that, in Twitter's opinion, do that. Kessler and Spencer promptly lost their badges.
The logic of Twitter's policy on account attribution is that it is fine with anonymous accounts and even bots as long as they don't tweet the exact same messages, porn or calls for violence. It is not fine with people who voice certain views under their real names.
This is totally backward.
Anonymous accounts spewing disinformation, including the hateful kind, are used in organised campaigns whose masterminds hide behind the anonymity. These can be foreign states, political parties and candidates — in violation of election-financing laws — or terrorist and other radical groups. Even if these accounts' posts are legal and in line with Twitter's rather loose content policy, their goals may and will often be illegitimate. Identifying these goals is difficult because it takes research to discover entire botnets and find out what they are trying to do. Even then, the attribution can be iffy — for example, a security guard in Glasgow was recently misidentified as a Russian troll because his English appeared strained. Shady actors use this difficulty to avoid taking responsibility for their efforts.
A proud white supremacist tweeting under his real name, however, is a person willing to take responsibility for the tweets. That includes being prepared for public condemnation and, in some countries, legal consequences, up to imprisonment. That, ideally, is how society wants adults, including those who hold unpopular views, to behave. Speaking openly is the responsible thing to do, especially when you have a potential audience of tens of millions.
Twitter's approach to named and unnamed users — restrict the former, let the latter romp more or less freely — may make business sense. Internet users like status-signalling baubles, so why not give them away to the most useful tweeters, such as celebrities and journalists, and why not take them away from people who cause publicity problems?
Investors, for their part, like higher user numbers better than lower ones. Twitter admitted recently that it had overstated them by a few million or two for the past three years, but a mass bot purge would probably result in much more significant restatements, something the money-losing company does not need.
Business reasons such as these, however, can only be tweeted out anonymously. They're not the stuff of mission statements.
I have a better idea for Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.
I can understand that Twitter does not want to abandon anonymity because anonymous voices can also be valuable. But it can encourage responsibility by extending its verification service to everyone who wishes to be identified. That would be the correct response to critics who wanted to de-verify white nationalists on the grounds that the blue badge is a medal, not an identity certificate.
Once verification is available to all takers, Twitter could openly divide its service into two strata: verified and unverified. The former would be the responsible feed, and the default one. The latter would remain a free-for-all playground, where users would be warned to expect anything at all — Russian election interference, fake news, impersonation, the lot. Twitter could even share revenue with verified users according to their traffic, providing an incentive to get verified. Users, of course, would still be able to combine their favourite accounts from both strata in a personalised feed, but at least they would be formally apprised of the risks.
I don't think Twitter — or Facebook, for that matter — is really interested in responsible user behaviour, just as these companies are not interested in admitting that they are really in the media business. They probably will not start thinking of meaningful solutions until regulatory pressure intensifies. That is wrong. For their own long-term survival, these companies should think more about what purposes they serve in society and how they could better serve them.
• Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru