Bots can undermine democracy.
On March 30, during the first Senate intelligence committee hearing on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, London-based cybersecurity expert Thomas Rid described how several groups became “unwitting agents” of Russian efforts to influence the American presidential election. One was WikiLeaks, which has been accused by the US government of helping the Russian government when it published thousands of emails related to the Clinton campaign. Journalists who “aggressively covered the political leaks while neglecting or ignoring their provenance” were another group.
And so was Twitter, Rid said, because of the “fully automated bots as well as semi-automated spam and trolling accounts [that] make up a sizeable part of Twitter’s active user base.”
In a January 6 report, the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency alleged that the Russian government undertook a wide-ranging effort to influence the 2016 election in an attempt to “undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” and that part of that effort included “paid social media users or ‘trolls.'” Twitter won’t reveal how many automated bots, semi-automated spam, and trolling accounts are part of its approximately 313 million monthly active users. But the site provides a perfect platform for deploying what are known as “active measures,” Russian methods of information warfare Rid described as designed for “easy exploitation—high impact.”
But what can Twitter do about them?
Anybody with technical know-how can deploy or hire Twitter bots, an army of automated or semi-automated Twitter accounts that push a particular message at a much faster pace than any individual user could. One South American hacker told Bloomberg in March 2016 how he used Twitter bots in an attempt to influence an election in Mexico. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed published an interview with a Utah-based software developer who created his own army of Trump-supporting bots during this last election. News organizations have also used bots to automatically push out certain news items or, in one case, highlight every time the New York Times uses an anonymous source.
Twitter Inc., struggling to find new users, will need to rely more heavily on its live video streaming strategy after top potential bidders were said to have lost interest in making offers amid pressure from their investors.
Twitter once saw interest from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Salesforce.com Inc. and Walt Disney Co., all of which consulted with banks on whether to acquire the social-media company. Now all of those suitors are unlikely to make a bid, according to people familiar with the matter. On Friday, Twitter had planned to have a board meeting with outside advisers on a sale but canceled, one of the people said.
The company’s search for buyers began after several quarters in which sales and user growth slowed. Twitter received interest from one potential acquirer, which led the board to hire Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Allen & Co. to pursue a sale in September. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey opposed a sale, while co-founder and board member Ev Williams, supported a deal.
Twitter has considered other solutions, such as divestitures of assets not central to its business, people familiar with the matter have said.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff wants Twitter’s data trove and brand; he called social-media pioneer an ‘unpolished jewel’
Salesforce Chief Executive Marc Benioff in San Francisco last month. Mr. Benioff recently told a dozen tech CEOs that Twitter was an ‘unpolished jewel.’ Photo: Reuters
Twitter Inc. is expected to field bids this week, and Marc Benioff has been building a case to Salesforce.com Inc. investors and others that his company should be the buyer, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Benioff is looking to make a splashy acquisition that would secure for Salesforce a treasure trove of data as well as a prized consumer brand, according to the people.
Mr. Benioff, whose recent approach to Twitter set off the bidding process, sees the social-media pioneer as an “unpolished jewel” with untapped potential in advertising, e-commerce and other data-rich applications he regards as important to the cloud-software juggernaut’s next phase of growth, the people said.
But the brash CEO, who lost out to Microsoft Corp. in a bitter battle to buy LinkedInCorp. this spring, faces formidable obstacles. Alphabet Inc. ’s Google may bid also, the people said, while media giant Walt Disney Co. has been considering its own offer.
While Twitter could cost upward of $20 billion, or more than a third of Salesforce’s roughly $49 billion market value, it would be more bite-sized for Google, the search powerhouse whose parent sports a market value of more than $500 billion. Disney, meanwhile, has a market capitalization of almost $150 billion.
Another week, another eruption of abuse on Twitter. This time, it was Breitbart writer and self-anointed “supervillain of the Internet” Milo Yiannopoulos, whom the company finally banned after he stoked his followers into flooding Ghostbustersactress Leslie Jones with hateful and racist messages. Yiannopoulos went so far as to tweet out fake screenshots of things Jones supposedly but did not actually say on Twitter. In the end, Jones said she would leave Twitter altogether.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was apparently aware of the situation, tweeting at Jones as early as Monday evening. But Twitter still took another day to finally kick Yiannopolous off the platform after facing considerable public pressure. On Thursday afternoon, Jones posted a short tweet saying she was grateful for the public’s support. “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” Twitter said in a statement addressing the incident. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”
Well, fine. That was certainly the right thing for Twitter to do, and as no shortage of incidents show, dealing with online abuse effectively can be tricky. But after years of Twitter maturing as a community and a company, including a seemingly robust anti-abuse policy, what gives? Why didn’t Twitter take more decisive—and frankly, faster—action?
Yes, Twitter walks a fine line in balancing its identity as an open network for all views while at the same time reserving the right to police content so that a mob can’t overpower and harass a single user. And in a lot of ways, it’s made progress: it explicitly banned revenge porn last year. It routinely works with groups to refine its anti-abuse tools, and it hasn’t shied away from banning other high-profile users in the past, including pop star Azealia Banks and right-wing troll Chuck C. Johnson. But some say Twitter is running out of excuses in its failure to fully address this problem. And that’s a shame, because there’s no other network that has accrued quite the same cultural currency as Twitter.
After the stock market crash of 2008, Bollen analyzed nearly 10 million tweets from that year. He found that when the level of panic rose on Twitter, the Dow would drop three or four days later.
The fate of the global economy is in doubt today following the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union. Last night the British pound fell to a 30-year low. Prime Minister David Cameron is resigning. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, called the referendum “the most significant, near-term domestic risk to financial stability.” This morning, within the first five minutes of trading, the Dow fell more than 500 points.
But long before all the votes were tallied—and years before officials finish negotiating the terms of the UK’s departure—Twitter had reached a consenus on the Brexit: This is a disaster.
And the consequences may well be that bad. Uncertainty has never been a friend to global markets, and uncertainty is just what Brexit creates in heaps, particularly for the British economy. But like never before, social media has the ability to amplify the angst that uncertainty creates. And the markets may well be responding to that enhanced anxiety.
There is a very real phenomenon of so-called ‘mood contagion’ that happens online.
To be clear, the social media masses aren’t the only ones predicting economic doom as a result of the Brexit. In an op-ed unsubtly headlined “The Brexit crash will make all of you poorer—be warned,” billionaire George Soros argued that a plunging British pound would make the country far more vulnerable to an economic crash than it was at the time of the global recession in 2008.
The markets are certainly responding to such admonitions. But mounting research shows that a feedback loop does exist between social media and the stock markets, in which online anxieties about the market’s response may feed into the response itself.