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Flock of followers descends on SE Asia’s Twitter users, but are they real?

Burmese users on Twitter have increased, but so have suspected automated accounts. (Photo: Kimberley Phillips / DVB)

High-profile Twitter users in Southeast Asia have reported an ongoing wave of new followers, a social media phenomenon first noted in March which has stoked fears that regional governments are zeroing-in on the platform amid growing concerns that their countries’ leaders are muzzling online speech. Burma, a relative newcomer to the Twitter scene, is among the countries under scrutiny.

Reporters, rights workers, and diplomats have seen their follower count skyrocket by hundreds and in some cases even thousands of faceless accounts — the majority of which abide by a naming convention that indicates the accounts were hastily set up. The suspicious accounts often have generic names from their supposed country of origin, followed by a string of digits. Despite appearing in droves on the platform over recent weeks, the accounts remain devoid of substantive posts or engagement.

This reporter contacted a dozen recent followers through Twitter’s direct messaging feature — the vast majority of whom have not replied to date.

The reason for the recent influx is pure speculation while the accounts lay dormant. Ray Serrato, a regional programme officer with Germany-based Democracy Reporting International, said the so-called “bot” accounts can be harnessed to amplify online harassment.

“The main risk is that they are poised to start harassing the people they follow. Usually you see such large spikes when fake followers are bought and used to amplify the account they’re following,” he told DVB.

He added that “they can also be trolls, not necessarily automated bot accounts. The eight digits are just one clue, like the lack of profile photo. At any rate, they really didn’t try to hide that they may be of dubious provenance.”

Twitter users from Cambodia to Sri Lanka and Vietnam to China, among others, have reported a deluge of new followers, leading observers to speculate that country-specific automated accounts are targeting users that have a specific country or countries mentioned in their Twitter biography.

Former Dutch diplomat Laetitia van den Assum, who also served on the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, called on Twitter to take action.

“This is ridiculous. What is happening and is condoned by Twitter is probably linked to an illegal bot factory that targets Twitter users like me who are active tweeters about issues related to Myanmar,” she said via email.

It’s “high time” Twitter implemented a mechanism to flag suspected bots to the user, she added.

“Right now Twitter notifies me only of a limited number of followers. I assume that these are the ones that they judge to be genuine.  I have not received notifications for the 1,000+ that I have blocked.  I have to take the time to check each and every one of them and then block them if I don’t trust them. Why can the latter group not be included in the notifications list but with a question mark or a red warning mark against them? That could be a separate list or integrated into the general list,” she said.

An examination of some of the other users followed by a suspected bot reveals clearly defined parameters for what appears to be any given automated account. Most seem to follow between 50-300 people that live and work within the same country and field.

In Burma, the current batch began the same month that the country’s Ministry of Transport and Communications announced a 6.4 billion kyats ($4.82 million) budget for a new Social Media Monitoring Team tasked with identifying online speech that could threaten national stability.

The ministry has not elaborated on the scope or specific details of the project, including no indication of which online mediums of communication will be monitored. Department of Communication spokesperson Myo Swe directed DVB’s calls to one Ye Naing, whom he described as a member of the monitoring team. Calls to Ye Naing went unreturned.

Ei Myat Noe Khin, a digital rights specialist at start-up hub Phandeeyar, said the announcement was yet another nail in the coffin for freedom of speech in Burma.

“Instead of forming a team and spending [nearly $5 million], the government should focus more on working together with civil society and other relevant stakeholders to make sure that the regulations are there to protect people’s rights on the internet, [not] surveillance,” she said.

The appearance of dubious Twitter accounts could be within the mandate of the new online watchdog, but the department has remained tight-lipped on its priority list.

The Twitter influx comes after a tumultuous few months for social media giant Facebook, which has been roundly criticised for failing to curtail Burmese nationalist hate speech against the Rohingya minority. The platform has commanded the lion’s share of the market in Burma, where researchers believe the site attracts nearly 10 million active monthly users.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg fronted a United States congressional hearing earlier this month, when he pledged to step-up efforts to battle hate speech.

“What’s happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we need to do more,” Zuckerberg said during a five-hour joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees.

Van den Assum said the high-profile Facebook case has overshadowed the real risk of smaller platforms being weaponised for similar means.

“While most attention is focused on Facebook at the moment, we tend to overlook that other social media platforms with a large following are also creating a lot of problems that they don’t seem to want to take responsibility for. The present Twitter fake followers situation is a case in point,” she said.

Bots and democracy

Bots and duplicate tweeting have long-plagued the social media network, which was founded in 2006 and boasts more than 300 million active users. In a February blog post, Twitter’s API Policy and Product Trust spokesperson Yoel Roth said the site is committed to tackling the problem, referencing the “malicious activity” on the platform during the United States’ 2016 presidential election.

Twitter had not yet responded to an emailed request for reply by the time of publication.

The bulk of controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 election campaign played out on social media in much the same way as that of then-US presidential hopeful Donald Trump. The firebrand leader immediately employed a team of social media strategists to disseminate his message to the country’s youth, largely bypassing traditional broadcast media. But research published by Rappler alleged that the Philippine president’s team had used automated bot accounts on social media sites to magnify Duterte’s reach.

Cambodia’s increasingly dictatorial leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, is also infamous for his use of social media. The country’s now-exiled opposition figurehead, Sam Rainsy, alleged to a US court that Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party had bought “likes” on social media and ordered government departments to generate favourable content.