At the beginning of March, twelve years after Twitter was founded and seventeen months after it helped swing a presidential election, the social network’s founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, told everyone he was sorry for pretty much everything. “We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation. It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we’re here,” he tweeted. “But we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences. We acknowledge that now, and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.”
Twitter had long been criticized for not doing enough to remove abusers, harassers, and neo-Nazis from its platform, and it had responded by doing very little. Thanks in part to this laissez-faire approach, and thanks in part to pressure to keep user counts high, Twitter also did little to stop the spread of bots, which have been used to scam users, influence elections, and generally drive everyone nuts. Now, Dorsey claimed, that was finally changing.
The bot purge may be the culmination of a shift for a company that has spent much of its recent history at odds with both its users and Wall Street, and which has struggled to respond to the various ways that its platform has been weaponized and degraded. But it also underscores the ways in which Twitter continues to fall short when it comes to making its service free of hate, abuse, and fake news.
Twitter has been aware of its problems for quite a while. Back in 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo admitted, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we’ve sucked at it for years.” As with Reddit, the trolls and Nazis scared off suitors and investors. But thanks to a libertarian-leaning ethos that privileged “free speech” above all else, Twitter still did little to curb the growing problem. (It perhaps didn’t help that Twitter’s board is dominated by white men.)
That all began to change in the wake of the 2016 election. Russian hackers made Twitter’s reluctance to police its own platform a matter of geopolitical significance. At the same time, Donald Trump’s reliance on Twitter made it the most important site in the world; if nuclear war were to be declared, it would be on Twitter. This created a paradox for the company. On the one hand, it was even more under the microscope than it was before. On the other, its significance helped it recover economically: Its stock price and revenue are both up after a long decline.
This is the most straightforward explanation for the company’s shift on bots. Twitter may not be a threat to Facebook or Google, but it’s out of the Wall Street doghouse. Newfound breathing room has given the company the freedom to concentrate on its long-term health.
This is part of a larger trend: Media companies everywhere are focusing more on engagement and loyalty and less on inflating user numbers. But it also shows that Twitter is operating in a more complex environment. Lawmakers have asked for Dorsey to appear before Congress, just one indication that social media companies are now in a post-2016, post-Cambridge Analytica regulatory environment. In 2017, the company started deleting half-a-million bots a day; that number has since doubled. Continued success—and perhaps survival—now means trying to keep investors, users, and Congress happy.
Twitter’s stock took a hit when the news was announced, over concerns that the company’s decision to delete millions of accounts would cause them to report a decrease in their user numbers. Still, it’s the easiest way for Twitter to show everyone else that it’s taking its problems seriously.
Ridding the site of white supremacists and Pizzagaters is more difficult and politically problematic, which helps explain why the company is focusing on other problems. Twitter has gone to great lengths to appease the right, and any purge, however justified, would result in waves of negative coverage from Fox News and the Drudge Report. (When Twitter last deleted millions of bots en masse, that’s pretty much what happened.) Dorsey, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, has spent the last 18 months trying to build alliances on the right, and he isn’t going to jeopardize those relationships anytime soon.
It’s unclear what effect the bot apocalypse will have. (The actual impact that bots have on political opinion is hotly debated.) Twitter will also never be free of bots. In fact, it could probably remove half-a-million a day until it ceases operations. Spammers, bot networks, trolls, and hostile actors will continue adapting and creating new accounts.
There is no doubt that Twitter has cleaned up its act over the last 18 months. It has undoubtedly made greater progress in fixing its problems than Facebook has. But that’s a low bar. Ridding the service of bots is easier than ridding it of bad people.