The Daily Dot reported recently on something many of us have suspected for months: Donald Trump’s infamous and sadly influential Twitter account is propped up by an army of fake followers and bots. The Dot shared data from SocialRank indicating that some 13 million of Trump’s followers may be of the fake variety. Or at least they’re inactive accounts. That’s nearly a third of his followers. A quarter of his followers have never tweeted. Not once. More than 300,000 follow only Trump on Twitter. Suspicious much?
And The Daily Dot goes on to provide more data indicating that Trump’s account is likely being buttressed by bots and fake followers.
Twitter would be entirely within their rights to purge these Trump bot and ghost followers. Of course, they’d be within their rights to purge any unused accounts from their platform after a given time. So they should do it.
Other social media platforms do this. You’ve likely been prompted by emails from companies like Tumblr to see if you’re still using a seemingly inactive account. Those handles are then released back into the wild. Tumblr even allows users to claim a new handle later and to restore their dormant content.
So Twitter could justify this move entirely as a non-targeted policy to free up unused Twitter handles just as many other social media platforms already do. This house cleaning need not be construed as singling out Donald Trump (even if he did inspire it), but as a way to scrub an effective but increasingly grungy platform, regardless of who the account or the followers belong to. It’s simply separating the wheat from the chaff.
A technical aside? I’m guessing purging such accounts by the millions would increase the overall speed and performance of the platform, too. Someone with better development chops than me can keep me honest on that point.
Perhaps the most important reason for this purge is to pre-emptively disarm any bots among Trump’s followers, which have been placed there to disseminate disinformation and create confusion when triggered at key moments. (We know these exist.) Within the last week or so, some have noticed what they believe to be a massive increase of bots following Trump’s account. Could this be someone preparing to sew confusion in the wake of any findings and indictments by the Mueller investigation? Whatever the purpose of these bots, if they can be manipulated in concert to act this way — as tools of disinformation, propaganda and confusion — it’s difficult to see why Twitter should maintain their presence.
Regardless of who these bots belong to or which account they’re following, they arguably already breech Twitter’s policies or “automation rules,” specifically on not misleading users and how to respond to tweets via automation appropriately. Twitter would be well within their rights to strengthen and clarify these guidelines to justify removing organized bot armies used to spread misinformation in the form of political propaganda and to apply those guidelines so they reduce such activity by individuals and groups without discrimination across the political spectrum.
Furthermore, Twitter could justify targeting prominent accounts like Trump’s simply to ensure accurate follower counts. This seems like a valid objective — especially where noteworthy accounts and public figures are concerned — because it addresses aspirational principles we should particularly value in such accounts, such as accuracy, authenticity, integrity and transparency. Where someone of Trump’s stature is concerned, isn’t an accurate presentation of his real follower count a public good? Don’t we deserve and shouldn’t we value a more accurate measure of his real support?
Finally, this change would also undermine many users’ common attempts to game the system and draw attention to themselves by artificially inflating their accounts for marketing purposes. (Or ego purposes.) After all, if you’re free to buy Twitter followers, why shouldn’t Twitter have the ability to rebalance the system as often as possible and even to undermine the dynamics that populate its system with dreck?
Purge away, I say.
A version of this piece also appears on Medium.com
Follow Robert Stribley on Twitter.