Twitter Vague on Action as Bot Army Idles

'I, Robot.' Original image: 20th Century Fox
'I, Robot.' Original image: 20th Century Fox

BANGKOK — Twitter says it is monitoring reports of a surge in suspected bot accounts as users say they are continuing to get bogus followers for a yet unknown purpose.

Saying it is aware of reports of large numbers of suspicious new accounts following influential users throughout Southeast Asia and beyond, the California-based social media company said it takes action against accounts that violate its rules.

“We are aware that users in some countries in Asia Pacific have reported unusual spikes in followers in recent weeks,” the statement said. “This is something we take seriously and are continuing to monitor and take action on, when we find accounts that violate the Twitter Rules.”

Read: Someone’s Building a Twitter Bot Army in Thailand

Twitter was ambiguous about what actions it was taking and did not say whether it had determined the accounts were bots. Last month, legions of similar new accounts cropped up throughout a number of countries – mostly in Asia. With few exceptions, all were new accounts with local-sounding names but no tweets or activity beyond following dozens of influential users. Many have what appear to be machine-generated account names.

Twitter did say that as many as 523,000 accounts suspected of automated logins have been detected and blocked systemwide on a daily basis.

Although some users have since reported a drop in the seemingly bogus account followers – Khaosod English lost about 100 after reporting on the issue – others say it’s still happening.

Peter Ford, a freelance journalist in Cambodia, said Wednesday that he went from a few hundred followers to more than 1,700 in the past month. He believes most of them are bots, since he usually gains only about 10 new followers per month.

“The bots seem to come in waves, and after a short period of only a few, I have again started to receive more followers,” he said in an email.

The accounts he described – no profile photos, repetitive or numerical usernames and no activity – fit the same pattern reported elsewhere.

And as in other cases, they have so far remained dormant, with most not exhibiting any activity beyond following him and other people in his “network.”

Ray Serrato, a social media researcher who has studied the issue, speculated the bots are mostly likely meant to propagate spam, but could “take up amplification and become social or political bots.” Others theorize they may be used for commercial purposes, such as recording online activity for targeted advertising.

In its statement last week, Twitter Singapore said the company is actively removing potential spam accounts as they find them.

“We fight hard to tackle spam accounts on our platform and our anti-spam team continues to evolve and respond to new forms of spam to enable a spam-free environment on Twitter,” it said.

Serrato, who works for Berlin-based Democracy Reporting International, said in an email that Twitter “seems to have taken notice” of the sudden influx.

Khaosod English, which last month saw a spike of about 700 followers saw about 100 of them vanish after asking Twitter to comment on the strange phenomenon of the dubious accounts.

Ford, however, said his list of followers is still steadily growing.

He said that he gets “a flurry of followers” every time he tweets on random topics. He also agrees with those who say the bots are targeting online influencers such as journalists, media companies and scholars, since he also manages a corporate Twitter account that “hasn’t received a single twitter bot yet.”

“I believe Twitter is also investigating the issue,” Serrato said. “The drop off in followers could be Twitter also beginning to delete suspicious accounts, but we have no confirmation of that.”

He said previously that this particular surge of bots has happened not only in Southeast Asia but also in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. Late last month he had counted roughly 40,000 such user accounts in Sri Lanka alone.

An April 18 report in the Financial Times also noted the same phenomenon in China.

Serrato suggested that whoever created the bots could easily learn Twitter’s detection methods and adapt to them.

“The accounts may have been able to proliferate just because they don’t violate Twitter’s criteria or until they begin exhibiting bot-like behavior,” he said, adding that whoever is behind them is smart enough to overcome whatever those methods are.

On Wednesday, Twitter said in its 2018 Q1 financial report that it added six million new active users after a net gain of zero during the quarter prior. Five million of the new accounts were created outside the United States.