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Twitter Inc. Faces Tough Questions About Russia

By Leo Sun - Updated Oct 9, 2017 at 6:19PM

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Russian operatives reportedly used fake Twitter accounts to divide Americans during last year’s election.

Twitter (TWTR 0.99%) faces tough questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding its role in spreading misinformation during last year's presidential election. The accounts, allegedly used by Russian operatives under fake left- and right-wing handles, repeatedly sent out tweets intended to stoke outrage, incite social chaos, and split voters along racial lines.

Investigators also found that three Twitter accounts for the Russian news outlet RT bought ads on the platform to promote tweets that targeted the U.S. market. These charges are related to the recent revelation that Russian operatives had purchased ads on Facebook (META 1.88%) and targeted voters through their social media profiles.

Twitter's mobile app.

Twitter's mobile app. Image source: Google Play.

In response, Twitter shut down over 200 accounts, and its public policy VP Colin Crowell met the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors. But after the meeting, Sen. Mark Warner -- a Democrat from Virginia who serves as the Committee's vice chairman -- told NBC News that Twitter's response was "inadequate on almost every level." Twitter and Facebook executives will testify further at an open hearing regarding the Russian investigation on Nov. 1.

Why this could be worse for Twitter than Facebook

This debacle could cause a bigger headache for Twitter than Facebook, since Twitter is already struggling to grow it users amid a storm of controversy.

Twitter is constantly accused of exacerbating the spread of fake news, enabling cyberbullies to anonymously attack their victims, and helping terrorist groups recruit members. Critics also claim that Twitter's hands-off approach to President Trump's freewheeling account is reckless and endangers national security.

A teenage girl responds to being cyber-bullied.

Image source: Getty Images.

To Twitter's credit, it suspended nearly a million terror-related accounts over the past two years, and added anti-abuse measures to counter cyberbullies.

But it still refuses to ban fake and bot accounts, claiming that they're useful marketing tools, despite the fact that grey market vendors sell thousands of bot accounts to users who want to amplify their social profiles. As a result, up to 15% of Twitter's active users are likely bots, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California and Indiana University.

As for divisive posts, false information, and Trump's tirades, Twitter classifies most of those tweets as "free speech" which it refuses to censor. But Twitter only seems to apply that standard to the US -- it quietly agreed to block or remove tweets in Israel, Pakistan, and Turkey upon government requests.

The free speech defense only goes so far

I previously argued that Twitter should be held accountable for the content that appears on its platform, and that it can't cite "free speech" every time a controversy erupts. The reason is simple -- if a TV or radio network broadcasts fake stories which incite panic, it will likely be fined by the FCC and face legal penalties. Pew Research recently reported that 74% of Twitter users use the platform as a primary news source, so it should be considered a news "channel" instead of a social network.

The problem is that social media platforms are so new that the US regulations haven't been updated to reflect that shift yet. This puts the US a big step behind Germany, which recently approved fines for social media platforms that didn't remove hate speech, fake news, and criminal content within 24 hours of being notified.

That loophole, coupled with Twitter's lenient attitude toward bot accounts and free speech in the US, arguably enabled state-sponsored Russian accounts to wreak havoc across Twitter with fake stories and inflammatory posts.

What are Twitter's options?

I think Twitter can fix this mess in two ways. It could follow the Chinese system, where users on big social media platforms like Weibo (WB 1.42%) and Tencent's (TCEHY -1.79%) WeChat are required by law to register their real names, government-issued IDs, and phone numbers to open an account.

That would purge a lot of fake accounts, but it would cause Twitter's monthly active users to plummet and cause a massive PR backlash regarding censorship, free speech, and privacy rights.

A softer move would be to team up with an AI specialist like IBM (IBM 0.10%), which it already holds an analytics partnership with, to identify and filter fake news. However, automating that process could inadvertently delete real news items and opinions, so it might need to follow Weibo's example and hire a staff of human censors to oversee the process.

But Twitter probably won't change

Big changes could make Twitter a more reliable platform for news, but it's highly unlikely to implement those changes anytime soon. That's because the management is likely more concerned with its sluggish growth in monthly active users (up 5% annually) and ad revenues (down 8% annually) last quarter.

This means that Twitter will likely promise to "do better" in the future, but we probably won't see better policing of bots, fake accounts, or fake news items anytime soon.

Leo Sun owns shares of Tencent. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Twitter. The Motley Fool recommends Weibo. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Twitter, Inc. Stock Quote
Twitter, Inc.
$42.94 (0.99%) $0.42
International Business Machines Corporation Stock Quote
International Business Machines Corporation
$132.61 (0.10%) $0.13
Meta Platforms, Inc. Stock Quote
Meta Platforms, Inc.
$170.25 (1.88%) $3.14
Tencent Holdings Limited Stock Quote
Tencent Holdings Limited
$37.81 (-1.79%) $0.69
Weibo Corporation Stock Quote
Weibo Corporation
$19.23 (1.42%) $0.27

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