Twitter is a strange animal as many users will attest. Some love its immediacy for following unfolding news or social events, or for stalking certain celebrities legally. While others will say it is nothing more than an annoying distraction they would prefer to live without… and yet they keep their accounts live. As a writer I suppose I fall into both of these camps; I do use it to track events but I also tweet about this or about that from time to time. My Tweets are sometimes serious or hopefully educational although I often prefer to lean towards the more humorous or self depreciating. In that sense I feel it represents a good flavour of who I am, or who I see myself as. However, some other people see Twitter, it’s freedom of expression its immediacy and mobility as not just an annoyance but as an actual menace. Living as I do in Turkey it would be very easy to go off on a tangent about how, when it isn’t shooting down Russian jets, Turkey’s ever more authoritarian government is the instigator of more complaints and Twitter service bans than any other country. But no, today I want to comment on a darker, hidden side of Twitter.
Trolls and abuse and porn and bigotry are unfortunately daily facts of life in the Twitterverse especially if you follow quite a few accounts. The answer to most of these problems is to simply stop following the offender, or, if it is really offensive to block or even report the user. Although this is not always successful, especially with the pond life known collectively as Trolls. However, there is also a dangerous subset of Trolls that I have unfortunately become familiar with over the years namely the state sponsored Trolls.
In the two and half years I have been on Twitter I have collected almost 20,000 followers, which is a few above the average. Some have come after reading my books or my blog posts or because they want to engage with one or other of my tweets. However, some people follow simply in the hope that you will reciprocate and follow them back. I will usually follow if I notice a good tweet or read an interesting profile or sometimes, if someone asks me politely too I may also just follow them back. In all I now follow about 7,000 which feels like a just about manageable ratio of 3-1. Anymore than this and your Tweet feed would wiz by a little too quickly to be of any real benefit. From time to time you have to weed out the old dead or dying accounts – inactive ones, where the user has abandoned Twitter or ones that may tweet only once or twice a year. I may then follow a few more accounts. In my first year I was more in the habit of following simply because they were following me. This is something, as I said, that many new users do unless they are some kind of star, which sadly I am not.
In that first year or so I noticed that whenever I put out a political type blog against countries like China or Russia I would suddenly get a lot more Russian and Chinese speaking followers. In my naivety I wrongly put this development down to support for one position or another that I had perhaps described in a blog so I would then follow them back. Unfortunately, as time went on my account began to suffer from a series of regular suspensions, which I could never quite figure out. Twitter Help is – as anyone who has ever tried to use it – an extremely hands off service and virtually impossible to engage with satisfactorily if your are expecting anything more than a computer generated response.
I was not breaking any Twitter rules and I was not tweeting anything overtly offensive unless you are a dictator or a dictatorship with a very thin skin of course. In the end, after a number of computer generated replies I did manage to get a human response and also discovered after searching online that other people had reported similar things happening to them. Over a period of a few days I gradually learned that certain blog accounts like mine were repeatedly reported, blocked or complaints raised until that account was suspended. The three blogs of mine in question, for which I suffered temporarily suspensions featured China on two occasions and Russia, namely Putin and his policies on all three occasions. Effectively what was happening was that several of my legitimate looking Chinese and Russian Twitter followers, were in all likelihood state sponsored trolls, who then worked in concert to log complaints against me. They did this because they know that the Twitter computer code reacts robotically once a certain level is reached and suspends such accounts, pending investigation. Of course any investigation would eventually discover that no Twitter rules had been breached – but because such automatic suspensions could take up to a week to sort out, I was effectively denied my account.
Both Russia and China are very well known for such negative online activity as well as their zero tolerance to any public criticism. So I will not elaborate any more here. However I was surprised that they even bothered themselves with such a small time user like me. As State sponsored cybercrime and intimidation get ever more sophisticated and damaging, all bloggers should be aware that if they post negatively about certain totalitarian regimes like Russia and China that an army of dark trolls is just waiting to be unleashed upon them.
In the end of course, despite knowing that one or two followers must have been genuine I reluctantly decided to strip out most of my Russian and Chinese followers and block those that I noticed had all followed me at about the same time or looked just too generic: the same smiling face or a brief profile that would read the same in several different accounts. You learn to recognise them in the end. Since then I have not followed a single Russian or Chinese account and to date I have not had my account suspended once in over a year and a half. Coincidence? Don’t you believe it.
So if you do have a Twitter account be very careful who you follow and just as importantly be more aware who is actually following you.