Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Twitter Must Tackle a Problem Far Bigger Than Bots

Twitter Must Tackle a Problem Far Bigger Than Bots

Thursday, 9 June, 2022 - 04:30

For years, anyone covering China as a journalist, researcher or public policy maker has had to deal with the issue of trolls, fake accounts, copycats and harassment on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Recently it’s been getting worse, and for a growing number of female writers of Asian descent it has become particularly aggressive and malicious.

New research released last week connected the dots for what most active Twitter writers in the region already knew: There’s an ongoing, sophisticated and coordinated campaign being waged by Chinese Communist Party-linked operatives against a core group of women who cover China.

“These women are high-profile journalists at media outlets including the New Yorker, The Economist, the New York Times, The Guardian, Quartz and others,” the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote. “The inauthentic Twitter accounts 1 behind this operation are likely another iteration of the pro-CCP ‘Spamouflage’ network, which Twitter attributed to the Chinese government in 2019.”

We’ve reached out to some of the victims mentioned in this report, but have chosen not to name them. Beijing has denounced the findings, telling the US news organization Axios that ASPI released “all kinds of disinformation about China.”

To its credit, Twitter in August 2019 published a compendium of accounts, tweets and other information connected to a “significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong.” The company went further by archiving the tweets and user information for 936 accounts it identified in that operation. A year later, the social media provider said it had removed more than 32,000 accounts it connected to disinformation operations in China, Russia and Turkey.

It is those 2019 accounts that researchers at ASPI linked to the more recent targeted harassment of female journalists of Chinese decent.

This latest campaign amounts to an escalation of the asymmetric information war being waged against foreign organizations and people, but to which there can be no counter response because China blocks access to overseas outlets and censors domestic platforms. State-run Xinhua News Agency even ran an article earlier this year accusing journalists of Asian descent who work for Western media outlets of “China-bashing.”

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that platform owners like Twitter Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc. (parent of Facebook) are either unwilling or incapable of comprehensively combating the issue. Engagement is key to the way these companies operate, and they’re set up accordingly — from the underlying code to the business models built on selling advertising.

“While we’ve made strides in these areas, we recognize the work we still need to do in order to minimize the disproportionate levels of abuse that women and underrepresented communities face online,” Twitter said in an emailed response to Bloomberg Opinion.

Among Elon Musk’s purported reasons for wanting to take Twitter private is cleaning up the site of bots — automated accounts run by machines instead of humans. Those that tweet promotions for cryptocurrency schemes are among the most notorious on the platform.

In online campaigns, especially those targeted at certain groups or issues, bots are a low-cost army that can be deployed to amplify an agenda or shout down opposing views. And whereas previous Twitter offensives spread disinformation, the latest operation is nastier because the victim here is not just the truth, but individuals who were targeted because of their gender, ethnicity and job.

Making matters worse, the company has been aware of a growing tide of ill-will against Asian women working for Western media. In August 2019, a user tweeted out a dossier of photographs of some writers from this demographic — including the ethnicity of their spouses. The account, and that Tweet, were flagged by this writer to Twitter’s policy communications team. The offending item was never taken down and the account remains active, continuing to spread racist messages targeting that group as recently as March.

So with that momentum brewing for at least three years, it’s no wonder that a more coordinated campaign targeting the same demographic would build steam — deploying an army of inauthentic accounts and automated bots. And it’s a problem just next door in India, too.

In January, media outlet The Wire outlined in minute detail the operations of software platform Tek Fog, which was used by operatives connected to the ruling party to spread misinformation and target individual journalists. One reporter told Bloomberg Opinion she was relieved to learn that it wasn’t humans sending vitriolic messages, but an army of bots. A former head of social media at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing who was named as a supervisor of the Tek Fog operation denied involvement in an email to The Wire at the time.

True progress can only come when social media companies find a comprehensive way to clamp down on the misuse of their platforms by actors who are allowed to remain in the shadows, disappear once spotted, and reappear again just as easily.

It would be nice to get rid of the scam bots and crypto scams. But it’s crucial that we do away with anonymous malicious harassers. That’s a task the world’s richest man would do well to put his mind, and money, towards.


Other opinion articles

Editor Picks