It has been jokingly referred to as “Botmageddon,” but a surge in new, anonymous Twitter accounts across swathes of Southeast and East Asia has deepened fears the region is in the throes of US-style mass social media manipulation.
Maya Gilliss-Chapman, a Cambodian tech entrepreneur working in Silicon Valley, early this month noticed something odd was happening.
Her Twitter account, @MayaGC, was being swamped by a daily deluge of follows from new users.
“I acquired well over 1,000 new followers since the beginning of March. So, that’s approximately a 227 percent increase in just a month,” she told reporters.
While many might delight in such a popularity spike, Gilliss-Chapman, who has previously worked for tech companies to root out spam, was immediately suspicious.
The vast majority of these new accounts contained no identifying photograph and had barely tweeted since their creation.
However, they all seemed to be following prominent Twitter users in Cambodia, including journalists, business figures, academics and celebrities.
She did some digging and published her findings online, detailing how the vast majority of accounts were recently created in batches by unknown operators who worked hard to hide their real identities.
She was not alone.
Soon prominent Twitter users in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka noticed the same phenomenon — a surge in follows from anonymous, recently created accounts, adopting local sounding names, but barely engaging on the platform, as if lying in wait for someone’s command.
While Facebook has received the lion’s share of international opprobrium in recent months over allegations it has been slow to respond to people and state actors manipulating its platform, Twitter has also faced accusations it has not done enough to rid the platform of fake users.
During the 2016 Philippines presidential election, there was a surge of organized bots and trolls deployed to support the man who eventually won that contest, the firebrand populist Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
And after the Burmese military last year launched a crackdown against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, there was a wave of accounts that cropped up supportive of the government on Twitter, a platform that until then had very few Burmese users.
With elections due in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in the next two years, many hit by the Twitter follow surge in Asia are asking whether the Silicon Valley tech giants are doing enough to stop fake accounts before they are given their marching orders.
Engineers were “looking into the accounts in question and will take action against any account found to be in violation of the Twitter rules,” a spokesperson for the company said
A source with knowledge of the probe said they believe the accounts are “new, organic users” who were likely being suggested prominent Twitter users across Asia to follow when they sign up.
“It’s something we’re keeping an eye on, but for now, it looks like a pretty standard sign-up/onboarding issue,” the source said.
However, many experts have been left unconvinced by such explanations.
“Are there really this many new, genuine users joining Twitter, all with the same crude hallmarks of fake accounts?” Raymond Serrato, an expert at Democracy Reporting International who has been monitoring the suspicious accounts, told reporters.
The issue of fake users is hugely sensitive for Twitter because a crackdown could severely dent its roughly 330 million audience — the company’s main selling point.
In a 2014 report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter estimated that about 5 to 8.5 percent of its users were bots.
However, Emilio Ferrara, a research professor at the University of Southern California, last year published research suggesting it could be double that — 9 to 15 percent.
Pew Research Center last week released a report analyzing 1.2 million English-language tweets that contained links to popular Web sites. Two-thirds of the tweets came from suspected bot accounts.
Twitter Audit Report, a third-party company that scans people’s followers using software to estimate how many are fake, suggests as many as 16 million of US President Donald Trump’s 51 million followers are not real people.
Jennifer Grygiel, an expert on social media at Syracuse University, New York, said the 2016 US presidential election has provided a blueprint for others to copy.
“Bad actors around the world have really followed the potential of social media to influence the political process,” she told reporters.
Twitter is a minnow compared with Facebook’s more than 2 billion users, she said.
However, it can still be influential, because many prominent opinion formers, such as journalists, politicians and academics, have a major presence on the platform.
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