FILE - This Oct. 26, 2016, file photo shows a Twitter sign outside of the company's headquarters in San Francisco. A white nationalist advocate is suing Twitter for banning his account amid the company's recent crackdown on content it deems abusive. Jared Taylor filed the lawsuit Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, in a San Francisco state court. Taylor joins a growing list of extreme right wing groups and figures suing social media sites for banning their accounts and content. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco. A rash of new anonymous followers has spurred concern that an army of robots is attacking the firm's service. Jeff Chiu/AP

'Botmageddon' fears stoked by slew of new Twitter accounts



It has been jokingly referred to as "Botmageddon" but a surge in new, anonymous Twitter accounts across swathes of South East and East Asia has deepened fears the region is in the throes of US-style mass social media manipulation.

Maya Gilliss-Chapman, a Cambodian tech entrepreneur currently working in Silicon Valley, noticed something odd was happening in early April.

Her Twitter account @MayaGC was being swamped by a daily deluge of follows from new users.

"I acquired well over 1,000 new followers since the beginning of March. So, that's approximately a 227 per cent increase in just a month," she said.

While many might delight in such a popularity spike, Ms Gilliss-Chapman, who has previously worked for tech companies to root out spam, was immediately suspicious.

The vast majority of these new accounts contained no identifying photograph and had barely tweeted since their creation.

But they all seemed to be following prominent Twitter users in Cambodia including journalists, business figures, academics and celebrities.

She did some digging and published her findings online, detailing how the vast majority of accounts were recently created in batches by unknown operators who worked hard to hide their real identities.

She wasn't alone.

Soon prominent Twitter users in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka noticed the same phenomenon - a surge in follows from anonymous, recently created accounts, adopting local sounding names but barely engaging on the platform, as if lying in wait for someone's command.

While Facebook has received the lion's share of international opprobrium in recent months over allegations it has been slow to respond to people and state actors manipulating its platform, Twitter has also faced accusations it has not done enough to rid the platform of fake users.

Most bots are used for commercial spam. But they have been deployed politically in Asia before. During the 2016 Philippines presidential election, there was a surge of organised bots and trolls deployed to support the man who eventually won that contest, Rodrigo Duterte.

With elections due in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in the next two years, many hit by the Twitter follow surge in Asia are asking whether the Silicon Valley tech giants are doing enough to stop fake accounts before they are given their marching orders.

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Read more:

Facebook tries controlling election fake news in India

Tech firms committed to fight back in war on 'fake news'

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So far Twitter has found nothing untoward.

A spokesperson for the company said engineers were "looking into the accounts in question and will take action against any account found to be in violation of the Twitter Rules".

A source with knowledge of the probe said they believe the accounts are "new, organic users" who were likely being suggested prominent Twitter users across Asia to follow when they sign up.

"It's something we're keeping an eye on, but for now, it looks like a pretty standard sign-up/onboarding issue," the source said.

But many experts have been left unconvinced by such explanations.

"Are there really this many new, genuine users joining Twitter, all with the same crude hallmarks of fake accounts?" said Raymond Serrato, an expert at Democracy Reporting International who has been monitoring the suspicious accounts.

The issue of fake users is hugely sensitive for Twitter because a crackdown could severely dent its approximately 330 million audience - the company's main selling point.

In a 2014 report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter estimated some 5 to 8.5 per cent of users were bots.

But Emilio Ferrara, a research professor at the University of Southern California, published research last year suggesting it could be double that: 9 to 15 per cent.

Last week Pew Research Center released a report analysing 1.2 million English language tweets which contained links to popular websites. Two-thirds of the tweets came from suspected bot accounts.

Twitter Audit Report, a third-party company that scans people's followers using software to estimate how many are fake, suggests as many as 16 million of US President Donald Trump's 51 million followers are not real people.

Jennifer Grygiel, an expert on social media at Syracuse University, New York, said the US presidential election has provided a blueprint for others to copy.

"Bad actors around the world have really followed the potential of social media to influence the political process," she said.

Twitter, she said, is a minnow compared to Facebook's more than two billion users. But it can still be influential because many prominent opinion formers such as journalists, politicians and academics have a major presence on the platform.

"If you can get information within this population, then you've scored," she said.

Serrato, from Democracy Reporting International, said the fake accounts could still pose a threat even if they are currently inactive.

"The accounts can be used at a later date to amplify certain tweets, hijack hashtags, or harass people," he said.

Ms Grygiel used a more blunt metaphor.

"The risk is the accounts are sitting there like a cancer," she said.

MATCH INFO

Asian Champions League, last 16, first leg:

Al Jazira 3 Persepolis 2

Second leg:

Monday, Azizi Stadium, Tehran. Kick off 7pm

Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya

Directors: Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sah

Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Dharmendra, Dimple Kapadia, Rakesh Bedi

Rating: 4/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Haltia.ai
Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends

The burning issue

The internal combustion engine is facing a watershed moment – major manufacturer Volvo is to stop producing petroleum-powered vehicles by 2021 and countries in Europe, including the UK, have vowed to ban their sale before 2040. The National takes a look at the story of one of the most successful technologies of the last 100 years and how it has impacted life in the UAE.

Part three: an affection for classic cars lives on

Read part two: how climate change drove the race for an alternative 

Read part one: how cars came to the UAE

Sugary teas and iced coffees

The tax authority is yet to release a list of the taxed products, but it appears likely that sugary iced teas and cold coffees will be hit.

For instance, the non-fizzy drink AriZona Iced Tea contains 65 grams of sugar – about 16 teaspoons – per 680ml can. The average can costs about Dh6, which would rise to Dh9.

Cold coffee brands are likely to be hit too. Drinks such as Starbucks Bottled Mocha Frappuccino contain 31g of sugar in 270ml, while Nescafe Mocha in a can contains 15.6g of sugar in a 240ml can.

Overview

Cricket World Cup League Two: Nepal, Oman, United States tri-series, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu

Fixtures
Wednesday February 5, Oman v Nepal
Thursday, February 6, Oman v United States
Saturday, February 8, United States v Nepal
Sunday, February 9, Oman v Nepal
Tuesday, February 11, Oman v United States
Wednesday, February 12, United States v Nepal

The specs: 2024 Mercedes E200

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cyl turbo + mild hybrid
Power: 204hp at 5,800rpm +23hp hybrid boost
Torque: 320Nm at 1,800rpm +205Nm hybrid boost
Transmission: 9-speed auto
Fuel consumption: 7.3L/100km
On sale: November/December
Price: From Dh205,000 (estimate)

The five pillars of Islam
Confirmed bouts (more to be added)

Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.

THE SPECS

Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
Power: 210hp
Torque: 320Nm
Price: Starting from Dh89,900
On sale: Now

UAE squad

Rohan Mustafa (captain), Ashfaq Ahmed, Ghulam Shabber, Rameez Shahzad, Mohammed Boota, Mohammed Usman, Adnan Mufti, Shaiman Anwar, Ahmed Raza, Imran Haider, Qadeer Ahmed, Mohammed Naveed, Amir Hayat, Zahoor Khan

The biog

Favourite book: You Are the Placebo – Making your mind matter, by Dr Joe Dispenza

Hobby: Running and watching Welsh rugby

Travel destination: Cyprus in the summer

Life goals: To be an aspirational and passionate University educator, enjoy life, be healthy and be the best dad possible.

UAE v Gibraltar

What: International friendly

When: 7pm kick off

Where: Rugby Park, Dubai Sports City

Admission: Free

Online: The match will be broadcast live on Dubai Exiles’ Facebook page

UAE squad: Lucas Waddington (Dubai Exiles), Gio Fourie (Exiles), Craig Nutt (Abu Dhabi Harlequins), Phil Brady (Harlequins), Daniel Perry (Dubai Hurricanes), Esekaia Dranibota (Harlequins), Matt Mills (Exiles), Jaen Botes (Exiles), Kristian Stinson (Exiles), Murray Reason (Abu Dhabi Saracens), Dave Knight (Hurricanes), Ross Samson (Jebel Ali Dragons), DuRandt Gerber (Exiles), Saki Naisau (Dragons), Andrew Powell (Hurricanes), Emosi Vacanau (Harlequins), Niko Volavola (Dragons), Matt Richards (Dragons), Luke Stevenson (Harlequins), Josh Ives (Dubai Sports City Eagles), Sean Stevens (Saracens), Thinus Steyn (Exiles)