Why is Twitter silent on the mysterious Southeast Asian ‘bot’ following?


A sudden and mysterious swell in Southeast Asian Twitter sign-ups has left several prominent users of the platform with hundreds of seemingly inhuman followers over the last three weeks. Twitter has refrained from publicly acknowledging the unusual nature of the great following, prompting calls for greater transparency.

“When I first saw these new followers, I thought I had finally become Twitter-famous,” wrote entrepreneur Maya Gilliss-Chapman in a Medium post about her sudden popularity on March 28. Like others targeted by the following, Gilliss-Chapman noted several commonalities among many (but not all) of the accounts: they appear to be Cambodian, they lack profile images, and they never tweet.

Moreover, like fake accounts that were investigated by the New York Times earlier this year, the mysterious Southeast Asian accounts appear to have come online in batches within minutes of each other and are mass-following constellations of similar accounts, often populated by lots of real people who know each other and work in the same city.

“It was easy to see that these followers were fake,” Gilliss-Chapman wrote.

The mass following did not stay confined to Cambodia for long. Soon, journalists throughout Southeast Asia, including several with links to Myanmar, noticed dozens of seemingly fake accounts following them every day. While there has been no indication yet that these followers are malicious, their existence raises other concerns.

“The possibility of these bots posing some sort of threat is definitely in the back of my mind, but until I see anything malicious, I’m not particularly worried,” Gilliss-Chapman told Coconuts. “I’m more worried about Twitter’s inability to spot this bot uptick, or if they have, I’m worried about their inability to eliminate it.”

In an email to Coconuts, a Twitter spokesperson wrote: “We are looking into the accounts in question and will take action against any account found to be in violation of the Twitter Rules.”

An recent article in the Financial Times offered a bit more insight into the company’s thinking, quoting an unnamed source familiar with Twitter’s inner workings as saying the mysterious accounts belong to real people who are opting for generic usernames, following suggested accounts in their areas, and simply not doing much else with their new profiles.

Naturally, users who have been targeted by the mass following are not convinced.

TechCrunch writer Jon Russell, who has been the target of what he calls a “noticeable rush of strange bot followers,” told Coconuts: “The creation of so many accounts in such a generic manner shows something odd is happening…It looks like someone, somewhere, is batch-registering a whole bunch of new accounts in a hurry.”

Russell acknowledged that authentic Twitter users are, indeed, directed to follow accounts that might be relevant to them, but he pointed out that “bots created at mass scale have been known to follow the same list of users to appear normal.”

Twitter’s reliance on the assumption that these strange, gang-following accounts are harmless humans is naïve, he said, especially in light of criticism rival platform Facebook has received for failing to properly monitor nefarious behavior on its platform in recent weeks.

Plus, on top of risking the same negligence Facebook was has been accused of, Twitter also runs the risk of undermining its recent and widely heralded commitment to fighting spam and fake accounts.

“Twitter recently tightened its service to limit what so-called bot farms can do, so it is certainly suspicious timing to see a load of very generic accounts pop up right after that,” Russell said.

Gilliss-Chapman agreed: “It was actually really odd timing. I gained hundreds of new followers the same day as when I read that Twitter had implemented new policies to prevent spam on the platform.”

For now, the following has not forced many users to alter their online behavior. Some say they like the appearance of being popular, while others say that if any action is necessary, it should be taken by Twitter. Absent any indication of a threat, Twitter appears unwilling to give its users any further guidance.

“If the bots were malicious, Twitter should immediately take the enforcement action they have promised,” Gilliss-Chapman said. “[But] there’s also something to be said for taking action before it gets to that point. [CEO] Jack Dorsey has said he wants to improve the platform’s health, so addressing this latest bot uptick and providing us with next steps is a great place to start.”

Russell said: “Twitter should address this directly.”

In the meantime, the so-called bots are beginning to reveal their purpose. Tens of thousands of bot-like accounts have flooded Twitter feeds in Malaysia over the past week trumpeting pro-government messages as an election approaches.

Furthermore, the accounts are also appearing to take steps to mask their inhuman qualities. As Gilliss-Chapman points out in another Medium post, many of the accounts now appear to share a love for the South Korean boyband BTS, and some even have profiles on other social media platforms, like Google Plus.

Are these recent developments just real people beginning to use Twitter properly? Possibly, but they’re also exactly the sort of things a bot would do to seem human.

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