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Conservatives outraged by #TwitterLockout

If a follower is a bot, is it really a follower? In a move it says is "without political bias," Twitter purges accounts that couldn't prove they're human.

Call it a purge. A lockout. A censorship campaign. Regardless of the term, conservative and far-right Twitter users are furious about the loss of thousands of followers overnight, with influencers and partisans particularly inflamed by what they perceive to be a targeted attack by the social platform.

Twitter confirmed Wednesday that it's cleaning up the site, saying it was enforcing its rules "without political bias" as part of an ongoing effort to verify that followers are actual humans. 

The move isn't the first Twitter has taken against a large number of accounts. In November, for example, Twitter stripped the verification badge from accounts associated with white nationalists, including Richard Spencer, who advocates a separate white homeland, and Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That same month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai criticized Twitter for having a "double standard" in how it treats conservative users. 

"Twitter's tools are apolitical," the company said in an emailed statement. "As part of our ongoing work in safety, we identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse. We also take action on any accounts we find that violate our terms of service, including asking account owners to confirm a phone number so we can confirm a human is behind it. That's why some people may be experiencing suspensions or locks."

Twitter is in a nearly continual battle against persistent Russian-tied activity around nearly every hot-button topic. After the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, bots last week began flooding Twitter with gun-related hashtags

But the company isn't the only social network trying to rid itself of fake accounts linked to Russia. Twitter, Facebook and Google told Congress in October they're committed to fighting Russian meddling. Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals for a campaign of false news and disinformation waged on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. 

"It's long overdue," Brian Solis, an analyst with the Altimeter Group, said of the move to purge the bots. "Quite honestly, it's still not enough. It's a fraction of what Twitter needs to do.

"The bot problem is one of several problems for Twitter," he added. "It's not promoting civil discourse. It's creating angst and chaos."

While Twitter didn't provide details on the number of accounts affected by the sweep, conservative critics, including Spencer, complained about losing thousands of their followers. They're posting under the hashtag #TwitterLockout.

Follower tallies tell the tale. Using the social-listening tool CrowdTangle, which pulls directly from Twitter's API, we looked at overnight follower activity. And the right isn't wrong -- many popular accounts lost numerous followers.

screen-shot-2018-02-21-at-8-43-01-am
CrowdTangle
screen-shot-2018-02-21-at-8-32-42-am
CrowdTangle

That loss doesn't appear to be equally spread across the political spectrum, which may be why Twitter made a point of describing its tools as apolitical -- on the hunt for suspicious accounts.  A list of progressive influencers on Twitter lacked the same drastic drop in followers. 

Many have since reported that previously locked accounts have been unlocked, follower counts are back on the rise and everything may be going back to normal.

screen-shot-2018-02-21-at-8-43-39-am
CrowdTangle

First published, Feb. 21 at 9:17 a.m. PT.
Update at 10:02 a.m. PT: Adds statement from Twitter.
Update at 11:23 a.m. PT: Adds background information
Update at 11:58 a.m. PT: Adds analyst comment.

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