Twitter Hygiene

Like weeds in a garden, bots and trolls impact Twitter to a degree not seen on Facebook, or other platforms that attempt to verify a human identity behind their accounts. No one really knows how many of Twitter’s accounts represent an individual, human user. Estimates range between 40-90%, depending on the criteria and the methods of measurement.

Not all of these non-individual accounts are deliberate trolls. Companies and organizations often set up accounts, many times assisted by bots, to manage their communications. But if you’re a woman or a member of a minority group on Twitter, you’ve likely had your threads hijacked by swarms of mindless garbage accounts. Jews in particular often find themselves targeted, having relatively routine tweets buried under dozens or hundreds of hostile, sometimes threatening, and often merely nonsensical replies.

Thanks to Noah Smith (@Noahpinion), I found a fun tool to fight back. It’s a browser extension called Twitter Block Chain that lets you mass-block all the followers of a Twitter user.

Say, you encounter an account on Twitter that looks like this:

Stock-footage image of a pretty woman. Half a dozen coded emojis. No name and a long list of conspiracy-driven hashtags. Just navigate to their followers list and press the Twitter Block Chain button in your browser. The app will exclude accounts you are already following from the block list.

Twitter Block Chain works best on your medium-sized MAGA-bots, accounts with fewer than 20,000 or so users. Chain-blocking the followers of Sebastian Gorka or Jack Probosiec may feel gratifying, but a lot of legitimate or semi-legitimate accounts follow them just to keep an eye on their activity. You might not want them all cut off. Also, beyond about 10,000 accounts it starts to get slow. This tool is more useful against phony or spam accounts that lack any human followers who aren’t idiots.

Once you’ve blocked two or three of them, you’ll notice something cool on your next try. A large percentage of that next account’s followers are already blocked. Go a few steps further, and you’ll encounter accounts whose followers are blocked at rates of a third or more. The lesson? These are troll accounts, often operating in concert, using each other’s feeds as cues to swarm. Block one, and you’ve hindered dozens. Block two or three, and the impact magnifies exponentially. That fact is key to understanding why blocking is so important to basic Twitter hygiene.

By the time I got to the followers list on this garbage account, I discovered I’d already blocked half of them.

Careful blocking of troll accounts, adopted en masse, creates a kind of herd immunity. These phony accounts set up to crush online communications depend on open access to operate. Large-scale blocking darkens their nodes, slowing their response time, access and effectiveness. Plus it’s fun.

The next frontier, of course, is the growing network of #Resistance trolls. One step at a time.

16 Comments

  1. And as of today, I am worth more than David Koch.

    He could potentially be worth the poundage of mulch, but like every vain solipsistic Westerner he’ll remove that value by pumping hiss body full of poisonous chemicals and hiding it in a wooden box under extracted marble covering valuable real estate. Net value to the world, now mathematically negative.

      1. “I’ll give the guy some credit for donating to cancer research”

        This actually perfectly illustrates the issue with the libertarian argument that wealthy benefactors can give to causes of their own free will on an open choice system. What they do instead is give money to their alma maters to pay the way for their kids, put their names on some pretty ‘cultural’ places like museums*, and put money into things that affect them and their family personally. Since they are wealthy and healthy and tend not to be faced with the issues most other people are faced with, they then tend to put lots of money into efforts that affect few people.

        David Koch was not giving money to cancer research because he saw a bunch of people suffering from cancer and thought, “You know what, I have a position here where I can help.” He gave to cancer research because he got cancer and wanted to live longer.

        The other issue is that now that he’s dead, he doesn’t have the ability to give more money to cancer research beyond assigning some of it as part of his estate or something. Cancer research can’t be beholden to finding that few dozen kindly billionaires, it has to be an ongoing, stably funded enterprise.

        In the end, as cancer kills a great many people, and actually kills far more than most issues people talk about, sure — glad that he put up for it. And I’ve personally enjoyed the museums he’s slapped his name on, so I’m technically a benefactor of his benevolence.

        But he personally created an entire political infrastructure whose focus is on making the protection of rich people’s assets a constitutionally binding function of government at the explicit detriment of people in need. He’s fundamentally broken our political system and did so because he expressly defends that holding on to an extra buck is more important to him than helping hungry people eat.

        And his death doesn’t really change that system that he created, as it was designed to operate without him and his brother and the rest of the family at the center … I.e. it wouldn’t depend on him. Funny how he was better able to do that in the cause of hoarding wealth, and wasn’t able to do that at the cause of curing cancer. Notice that? He has the ability to create larger policy networks, and what did he choose to focus that ability on?

        He chose to focus it on expanding his own wealth and control. Now he has neither wealth nor control, because he’s dead. And that’s precisely why people like him should be shamed, shunned, and reviled. Because all the long term damage the selfishness caused lasts far longer than the life that is around to enjoy the riches. He’s dead, everything he worked for does nothing for him anymore. All that’s left is the bill.

        And that’s all libertarianism is at root: those who have access to resources should be allowed to use them, everyone else can figure out the bill.

      2. When I’m passing judgment on a person (which usually is because they want my vote, or, as in this case, I’m deciding how I feel about the legacy of someone who has just died), I have a score card with 2 columns: the Good things, and the Bad things. I deem it fair to honestly fill out both; then I judge by the balance between the two. David Koch is a net negative in my book.

        When the Tangerine Terror finally kicks it, I can’t see anything that will go into the “good” column. The man truly has zero redeeming characteristics.

        “David Koch was not giving money to cancer research because he saw a bunch of people suffering from cancer and thought, “You know what, I have a position here where I can help.” He gave to cancer research because he got cancer and wanted to live longer.”

        But to people who have cancer, or like me, have worked in cancer research, the $ spends the same either way. I recognize than there were some self-serving motives there, but I don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the (on the balance) good. The real dilemma is when tobacco companies offer research $, even if they don’t put strings on it..

        “The other issue is that now that he’s dead, he doesn’t have the ability to give more money to cancer research beyond assigning some of it as part of his estate or something. Cancer research can’t be beholden to finding that few dozen kindly billionaires, it has to be an ongoing, stably funded enterprise.”

        You’re preaching to the choir there. R&D of all types produces much public good, and needs lots more public funding.

      3. I put uber wealthy, very political people’s “donations” in the same column with those who never miss a church service but are so critical of those who are poor or suffering. I’m sure the cancer organizations were happy to get the money, but I agree that all too often the purpose is self-serving. Still, a dollar is a dollar and if it advances a good cause, that’s great. I simply don’t think it evens the score of a life spent hoarding wealth and working assiduously to screw the poor.

  2. https://reallifemag.com/dispatches/the-house-is-haunted-by-the-echo-of-your-last-goodbye

    “People used to put disclaimers in their bio lines: “Retweets are not endorsements,” but AI processing certainly doesn’t care what you “meant” in sharing a link, even if you can remember what that was. A future employer or lender (let alone a future enemy) probably won’t care either that your old social media content has been analyzed out of context in some way you never anticipated. For them, that may be the whole point, the trick that reveals the secrets that anyone under consideration for anything will always be presumed to be hiding in the low-trust society that ubiquitous surveillance is teaching us that we live in.

    “In this article (https://www.wired.com/story/internet-made-dupes-cynics-of-us-all/) , Zeynep Tufekci blames the internet’s climate of pervasive fraud for the facilitating a low-trust culture, but one must also factor in not only surveillance that renders the idea of “kindness of strangers” obsolete — see this thread (https://twitter.com/halhod/status/1144519829870616578) — but also the imposition of ratings and measurements everywhere, and the new kinds of data that can be used as ways to circumvent trusting people. Why trust when tech companies promise that you can verify? Never mind that social media’s verification systems are also scams (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/06/instagram-and-twitter-should-eliminate-verification/592351/).

    “Deleting tweets on Twitter is not as straightforward as it could be — it requires a series of clicks through a series of drop-down menus and pop-ups, necessitating a lot of mouse movements and taps and clicks. This is clearly by design: the same reason it is prudent to delete old posts is the same reason archival social media platforms make it difficult. Your posts are valuable data to them. This makes one wonder if “deletion” actually does anything beside remove your content from public view — it is likely already cooked into various internal aggregations and analyses of user data. Whether or not it remains available after deletion for the company’s future processing feels unknowable.”

    There is no Twitter hygiene. Or really Internet hygiene, anymore. It’s in development, often with discussions of what ‘the next Facebook is’ followed by ‘It’s not going to be a Facebook’ counters, but it could easily be fragmented nationalist or regionalist intranets, or supranational distributed identity verification systems such as described in Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell (with people literally paying others to be their individual web filters called Editors), or unknown but powerful newer media infrastructures.

    But right now the only way to purify Twitter is fire.

  3. EJ

    Future historians are going to be so weirded out by twitter logs.

    “Why is this Macedonian teenager running a hundred nationalistic American accounts which wave Syrian flags?”, they’ll ask. “Why are there all these AmazonBrandAmbassador accounts which change their names every few weeks? What’s up with the complex dance between the Hasbara trolls and the MAGA trolls?”

    If I may be permitted to get philosophical for a moment, I think some of it comes from the distinction between a one-way and two-way communication medium. Twitter is inherently designed to be two-way: you use the same interface to both read and write, and everyone can both send and receive. Television is one-way: John Oliver speaks to you but you cannot speak back to him.

    Twitter troll armies, even the bot ones, are all ultimately carrying out decisions made by human beings. Does that make those humans just another twitter user? No, because while they’re flooding the medium with messages, the human beings making the high-level decisions about those troll armies are not reading – and not interested in reading – the replies. They want to use twitter as a one-way medium, like television or a newspaper, in which the person who is rich enough to own the infrastructure does the talking, and the rest of us do the listening.

    One of the reasons why everyone hates @jack – besides his friendship with some truly vile white supremacists like Mike Cernovich – is that he needs to maintain a complex balance. The user base of twitter are there because it’s a two-way medium, but all the money comes from people who want to use it as a one-way medium. There is no solution to this contradiction, only a day-by-day navigation of the tension it creates, and the constant pissing off of everyone who dislikes it from either side.

      1. EJ

        Of course it is. Propaganda and advertising are synonyms, after all, and all media channels fundamentally exist to carry advertising.

        What’s the difference between selling Coca Cola and selling fascism? Not much. If you can do one you can do the other.

      2. I don’t really feel historians will be confused by social media, as there is plenty of analog print discourse about it to contextualize it. More significantly, people vastly overrate the chances that 99% of the stuff online will even be accessible in even ten years. Digital archiving isn’t just shit, it’s not even actual archiving. A well placed EMP from the sun or a terrorist eliminates most of what you thought was stable about most of our electronics. In absence of actual damage is simple digital decay: dead links, bankrupt social media cpamies, changing standards, competing platforms, and pure old fashioned negligence. Most of Twitter won’t exist on anything resembling it’s current format in ten years, even assuming Twitter is still in business and formated around character-limited microbroadcasting.

        I still think Twitter specifically, of all social media networks, is the worst one and the only good way of recovering from it is to shut it down. The others can be reformed theoretically. Twitter was always based on turning every single person’s every last thought into a soundbite, which is the leading red flag of stupidity and ignorance inflated by arrogance and ego.
        Twitter makes you stupider just by using it.

        Fuck Twitter. Burn it with fire.

        As for social media being coopted by propaganda (/advertising), that’s a period every medium goes through after the ‘consolidation’ stage. To review, all media follow this pattern:

        1) invention

        2) early adoption / experimentation

        3) public recognition, beginnings of commercialization

        4) crystalization

        5) mass adoption

        6) consolidation

        7) mass influence

        8) standards and regulation

        9) institutionalization

        10) Disrupted by a new medium

        Just look back to how propaganda operated over the radio and film in the 30s, and you’ll see that it’s not only pervasive and effective but also actually really silly and ridiculous. Propaganda is easy when it’s ‘new’ but thereafter has to be sneakier / more nuanced ( Fox News vs. Triumph of the Will). It actually works the same way new art movements work: the first stuff is impressive BECAUSE it’s new, but then people get used to it once it’s easy to do and start expecting more work.

        Don’t know if we have enough time to develop ‘nuance’ in social media when, you know, the Amazon is burning, but the scariness of ‘right now’ still doesn’t change the familiar cycle of media platform development.

  4. Another approach is to largely ignore online & social media. That is my approach. I have a Facebook account which I only look at maybe once a month. I check Political Orphans fairly frequently and comment occasionally. Daily KOS, I do check and comment fairly often, when a Diary is of interest. I do not have a Twitter or Instagram account, though I do check a Twitter feed, if I follow a link. I generally depend on email and text messaging. For email, I have 3 accounts for different purposes, with one primary account for family and personal matters. When traveling, I ignore all email except for the primary account and have a number of rules set up to eliminate undesired email.

  5. I have a few Twitter accounts (like Chris’) bookmarked, as I will get a peek into some interesting discussions. But I’m holding firm in not getting one for myself.

    Other Twitter feeds worth my time to check periodically: Popehat, Kevin Kruse, and Jim Wright (AKA Stonekettle).

    1. Jim Wright refers to “air locking” the trouble makers, and he’s been using the feature Chris describes quite gleefully. I agree with the sentiment that you don’t owe anyone a debate, especially a troll. In my other online forums where you can put people on ignore, I have some pretty lengthy troll lists. They aren’t worth any additional time. It really is not very hard to distinguish between an honest differing option and a threadshitter. Sadly there’s for too many of the latter. I don’t like #Resistance threadshitters anymore than the #MAGA variety.

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