As of the first quarter of 2018, Twitter boasted of more than 336 million monthly active users (MAU), the key performance indicator tracked by social medial firms and their investors. MAU denotes the vibrancy, activity and growth of a social media platform’s user base, which is the lifeblood of these firms as advertisers and political campaigns alike leverage big data and big networks for big influence. By this measure, Twitter is a force to be reckoned with being one of the most widely used social media platforms around the world, ranked at number 6 in terms of popularity and number 4 in the U.S., with more than 70 million MAU. Twitter is also the most favored communication method for President Trump, who has leveraged the platform to undercut the media and get his message directly to his constituency and the world 280 characters at a time. Twitter’s move to delete 70 million accounts should give people great pause as to how social media platform’s and their ravenous quest for growth has been coopted by bots and influencers at any cost.
As Twitter cracks down on the invasion of fake accounts and bots on the platform, eliminating a reported 70 million accounts, or 20% of its MAU, over the last few months, when temporary investor alarm wanes, concerns should remain. Specifically, we should be concerned about how social media platforms and their initially tenuous business models wherein people likened them to benign social utilities veered into echo chambers of mass influence and oversimplification – at once shirking the rules of trade that bind traditional media and technology companies, while at the same time hiding behind the social utility argument when queried. Facebook befell a similar fate with its massive breach of user trust, although unlike Twitter’s purge of 70 million accounts, Facebook’s case had more to do with lax internal controls in how third parties could access private information on the platform. Both cases, however, show how two leading social networks and their fall from grace stems from the inexorable quest for user growth – even if those users are bots or nefarious actors.
While one should take a genuinely forgiving view of the foibles of these young, yet massively influential firms, because few could have contemplated how they would evolve over the years, we can no longer ignore their social and political consequence. The advent of election-swaying fake news or informational bubbles that tear at social cohesion and fuel political tribalism are very real threats not directly caused by these platforms, but very much amplified by them. Clearly, the onus is on the individual social media user (to the extent they are not AI-powered bots) to be more discerning about what is real and what is fake, in the same way a ballot box confers clear choices on discerning politically engaged voters. Nevertheless, the generational power of influence that has shifted to these platforms, including from organized state-backed entities like Russia’s troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, cannot be dismissed. The pressure to right-size its network is surely fueling Twitters account purge. A 70 million user adjustment is roughly the size of Twitter’s U.S. user base, to but the scale of this correction into perspective. How many tweets, retweets, likes, eyeballs and opinions were tarnished by this questionable user base?
Twitter, like Facebook before it, will surely recover from the temporary knock in investor confidence. Indeed, but a few months after Facebook’s debacle and the crestfallen Mark Zuckerberg was carted before angry politicians, he became the third richest person in the world. Both firms and other social networks would do well in questioning their agnosticism to how their platforms are utilized and by whom or what. Perhaps this purge augurs precisely this type of internal correction at Twitter in terms of market and user conduct. No matter how Twitter, Facebook or other social media firms evolve, the ultimate burden, like so much cyber risk, lies between the keyboard (or smartphone) and the chair. People need to adopt a greater degree of personal prudence and research discipline that takes them beyond 280 characters worth of information or quick Google searches to fuel their opinions. If nothing else the removal of 70 million users suggests that the “person” on the other side of the looking glass may not have been a person after all, but an AI-powered chatbot hellbent on distorting or fueling your truth.
Much as the Facebook inquiries revealed, the present cadre of policymakers and the short-term cadence of political attention makes regulating technology firms and governing cyber threats a largely unproductive exercise. Indeed, the fact that there is no longer a public conversation about Equifax and the revelation of personal data on more than 150 million people, suggests that our privacy and security may very well be in the hands of technology leaders and their commitments to self-discipline in regulating their business models. Perhaps Twitter’s purge, Like Facebook’s mea culpa, reflects precisely this type of self-restraint. Either way, social media users should be weary of the effects of being connected to millions of people, while being alone together.