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10/27/2017 5:12 am  #1

Russia Fanned Flames With Twitter, Which Faces a Blowback

Russia Fanned Flames With Twitter, Which Faces a Blowback


Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. The company is being called to account for its role played in the deception and chicanery that surrounded the 2016 presidential election. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Fires need fuel. In this era of political rage, a Twitter account that called itself the unofficial voice of Tennessee Republicans provided buckets of gasoline.

Its pre-election tweets were a bottomless well of inflammatory misinformation: “Obama wants our children to be converted to Islam! Hillary will continue his mission.” A mysterious explosion in Washington, it said, had killed one of Mrs. Clinton’s aides, raising her “body count” to six. Another proclaimed, “Obama is the founder of ISIS.”

The account, @TEN_GOP, eventually reached more than 130,000 followers — 10 times that of the official state Republican Party’s Twitter handle. It was one of the most popular political voices in Tennessee. But its lies, distortions and endorsements came from the other side of the world.

@TEN_GOP was a Russian troll account devoted to stoking division in America, according to a report earlier this month by RBC, a Russian media company with a history of independence. Twitter declined to even discuss the account, which had posted 10,000 tweets by the time it was finally shut down in August. That was more than a year after Republican officials in Tennessee had first complained about its misrepresentations to Twitter.

“It’s disappointing and disheartening to see how an outside actor can pinpoint areas of division in America and then exploit them,” said Brent Leatherwood, the former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party. “You think we’re getting to a better place and then something like this throws a Molotov cocktail into it.”

Perhaps no form of communication has ever established itself so quickly and so thoroughly as social media. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have grown to rely on it for news and information. Now Twitter and Facebook are facing a moment of reckoning. They, as well as Google, are being called to account for their role in the deception and chicanery that has surrounded the 2016 campaign, especially from accounts linked to Russia.

How much damage did those accounts do in the months leading up to the presidential election? No one knows, not even the companies themselves, which are slowly and grudgingly releasing data about what happened. Next week, they will send executives to testify at congressional hearings, the beginning of an attempt to calculate an answer.

Google and Facebook are powerful and wealthy companies that are skilled enough to ride out this controversy. But for Twitter — influential, yet smaller and far less financially successful — the situation is more vexing. Its devotion to open discourse is drawing an abundance of troublemakers who threaten to drive out the well-intentioned.

Many of Twitter’s users have long been frustrated with the site’s scattershot efforts at preventing abuse and harassment. Twitter’s critics have counted at least a half-dozen times over the last few years when the company has said it was taking an issue seriously but little seemed to change.

The debate about abuse and harassment has even fed complaints about Twitter’s most prominent fan, President Trump, and his use of the site as a cudgel against everyone from Kim Jong-un of North Korea to Jemele Hill of ESPN. Twitter’s guidelines forbid “threats of violence” and “targeted abuse” prohibitions that some users have tried to hold up against the rhetoric coming from Mr. Trump’s account.

In recent weeks, Twitter has updated its terms of service to better fit the company’s evolving views on hosting the president. That includes allowing tweets under the “newsworthy” label it might otherwise ban. But the platform was forced to apologize for the confusion it generated in trying to explain the changes, tweeting “We need to do better.”

Twitter declined to comment this week on President Trump. Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, was dismissive of concerns over the president’s Twitter habits in an interview shortly before rejoining the company in the spring. “It’s too early to say we’re all going to die because Trump has a smartphone and can say what he wants to a lot of people,” he said.

There are already signs that Twitter’s bottom line is feeling the effects. An analysis by the research firm eMarketer this week anticipated the number of worldwide Twitter users growing ever more slowly in the years to come: 4 percent this year, 3 percent in 2018, 2.5 percent in 2019. Since other parts of social media — most notably Facebook — are growing faster, fewer than one out of 10 social media users will be on Twitter by 2019, eMarketer suggested.

“Hate speech and harassment are real impediments to attracting new users,” said Michael Pachter, managing director of the investment firm Wedbush Securities. “If you think about why are people alcoholics, it’s because they don’t acknowledge they’re alcoholics.”

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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