Facebook’s lack of attention to how third parties are using its service to reach users ended up with CEO Mark Zuckerberg taking questions from Congressional committees. With that in mind, you’d think that others in the social media space might be more attentive than usual to potentially malicious actors on their platforms.
Twitter, however, is turning the other way and insisting all is normal in Southeast Asia, despite the emergence of thousands of bot-like accounts that have followed prominent users in the region en masse over the past month.
Scores of reporters and Twitter users with large followers — yours truly included — have noticed swarms of accounts with generic names, no profile photo, no bio and no tweets have followed them over the past month.
These accounts might be evidence of a new ‘bot farm’ — the creation of large numbers of accounts for sale or usage on-demand which Twitter has cracked down on — or the groundwork for more nefarious activities, it’s too early to tell.
In what appears to be the first regional Twitter bot campaign, a flood of suspicious new followers has been reported by users across Southeast Asia and beyond, including Thailand, Myanmar Cambodia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka among other places.
While it is true that the new accounts have done nothing yet, the fact that a large number of newly-created accounts have popped up out of nowhere with the aim of following the region’s most influential voices should be enough to concern Twitter. Especially since this is Southeast Asia, a region where Facebook is beset with controversies — from its role inciting ethnic hatred in Myanmar, to allegedly assisting censors in Vietnam, witnessing users jailed for violating lese majeste in Thailand, and aiding the election of controversial Philippines leader Duterte.
Then there are governments themselves. Vietnam has pledged to build a cyber army to combat “wrongful views,” while other regimes in Southeast Asia have clamped down on social media users.
Despite that, Twitter isn’t commenting.
The U.S. company issued a no comment to TechCrunch when we asked for further information about this rush of new accounts, and what action Twitter will take.
A source close to the company suggested that the sudden accumulation of new followers is “a pretty standard sign-up, or onboarding, issue” that is down to new accounts selecting to follow the suggested accounts that Twitter proposes during the new account creation process.
Twitter is more than 10 years old, and since this is the first example of this happening in Southeast Asia that explanation already seems inadequate at face value. More generally, the dismissive approach seems particularly naive. Twitter should be looking into the issue more closely, even if for now the apparent bot army isn’t being put to use yet.
Facebook is considered to be the internet by many in Southeast Asia, and the social network is considerably more popular than Twitter in the region, but there remains a cause for concern here.
“If we’ve learned anything from the Facebook scandal, it’s that what can at first seem innocuous can be leveraged to quite insidious and invasive effect down the line,” Francis Wade, who recently published a book on violence in Myanmar, told the Financial Times this week. “That makes Twitter’s casual dismissal of concerns around this all the more unsettling.”