Twitter ramps up effort to combat abusive bots, trolls

New users will have to confirm an email address or phone number to register an account.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
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Twitter is making changes to address abuse and malicious automated accounts in the face of criticism it doesn't do enough to curb harassment and manipulation on its service.

The social media platform says it's seen a dramatic increase in the number of spammy or automated accounts being created each week. Last month, its machine learning tools identified nearly 10 million potentially fake or spammy accounts being created weekly, up from 3.2 million in September.

Under rules announced Tuesday, new Twitter users will be required to confirm either an email address or phone number when signing up for an account. Twitter also plans to reduce the visibility of spammy accounts by removing them from follower figures and engagement counts until they can pass a challenge such as confirming a phone number.

"We think this is an important shift in how we display tweet and account information to ensure that malicious actors aren't able to artificially boost an account's credibility permanently by inflating metrics like the number of followers," Twitter said in a blog post.

The social network boasts 330 million user accounts, which tweet about everything from social issues to the latest tech news and represent everyone from Katy Perry to Pope Francis. But a New York Times investigation found that millions of accounts on the service may be fake, created to help celebrities hawk products and to make "influencers" appear to have more -- well, influence.

The new approaches come as Twitter deals with revelations that Russian-linked social media troll accounts may've influenced the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Twitter told congressional investigators in January that Russian bots shared Donald Trump's tweets almost 470,000 times between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016. During that same time frame, the Russian-linked accounts retweeted candidate Hillary Clinton less than 50,000 times.

"These issues are felt around the world, from elections to emergency events and high-profile public conversations," Twitter said in its blog post Tuesday. "As we have stated in recent announcements, the public health of the conversation on Twitter is a critical metric by which we will measure our success in these areas."

Earlier this year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asked users for ideas on how to fix its service after acknowledging that his influential social network has an extremely toxic side and that his team had underestimated its "real-world negative consequences." Twitter, he acknowledged, has "witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers."

Over the past few years in particular, Twitter has become a central stage for abuse, be it revenge porn, attack mobs, privacy violations, death threats or attempts to sway elections.

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