There’s something rather brutal about the idea of bot purges – perhaps a reflection of the humanity with which we endow human-looking accounts. Twitter’s decision to suspend thousands of accounts last month was less horrific than it sounded: a small attempt to solve a problem which has plagued the platform for over a year now, and has brought into the radar of US and British politicians as an ambivalent if not mercenary hawker of propaganda.
This didn’t stop it from earning the ire of conservative accounts (including some of the more prominent members of the alt-right and related conspiracy theorists), who had found thousands of their followers eviscerated. To them, it represented just another part of the ongoing skirmish with big tech which had attempted to shut them out of the marketplace, or flag their ideas as fake news.
It doesn’t help that at least some of the accounts which Twitter targeted were real conservative commentators rather than strings of code. In fact, it only adds to the ongoing debate about what a bot really is. Granted, there are the most crude examples of accounts which blurt out the same message over and over, but there are plenty of humans who perform similar functions. On the one hand, this arguably says more about the state of Twitter discourse than anything: if your posts look like they’re written by a painfully simple programme, you’re almost certainly not adding a lot to the conversation. The problem only intensifies when we consider that a lot of bot accounts are ‘cyborgs’, partially automated but with a human who can step in as and when necessary.
And then there are sockpuppets – better known as trolls – who voice an opinion for money or patriotism. They’re by no means new or unique to Twitter (Wikipedia has struggled with them for years and years), but at a time when social media has increasingly come under scrutiny, it’s difficult to ignore them. Of course, bot purges can’t capture them: Twitter can only stop automation, not insincere or unethical tweeting.
And therein lies the crux of the problem: purges of bot accounts are like putting a plaster over a serious wound. The people running them will have them back up and running, not least because they’ve proven very quick to adapt to research on automation and integrate it in their strategies. A longer time solution is necessary to restore any meaningful trust in social media. Rather than engaging in heavy-handed crackdowns with little explanation – relying on people not caring enough about what algorithms are really responsible for figuring out who alleged bots are – Twitter could do a lot better with emphasising transparency. Because, at the end of the day, Big Tech has never shown a great concern about its role in affecting democracy, for better or worse: instead, its actions have been dictated by PR concerns.
Moving away from the pedestal of the Philosopher King could do Twitter a little good – and society a whole lot more. Fight bots, by all means, but encourage media education and engage with people too; that’s the way to make the change more than skin-deep.