In our prior post in this series we replicated a Reply Trap for sending an account to TwitterGulag. If you are unfamiliar with TwitterGulag and how Twitter activists use the platform to silence opponents you should read that article first.
For those familiar with TwitterGulag and account suspensions, that post showed just one of the many ways an account can get suspended. Regardless of the exploit used, the fundamental element of all techniques is “Blocking” and “Block and Report for SPAM.” But how many blocks are required for each exploit? And how do you know how many have already “stuck” to the account?
Take a look at this picture? What is wrong with it?
Notice it says there are 3 followers yet you see at least 5 followers listed? Welcome to how you can monitor active blocks on an account.
Here is how you can see how many “active blocks” are against an account. It is very simple:
- Log into the Twitter web client
- Go to the “followers” page for the account you want to monitor and see the number of followers listed – as blocks come in against the account the number displayed will decrease each time you refresh the page.
- From another browser (or an “incognito” or “private browsing” window of the same browser) go to the profile page for the account you are monitoring and look at the follower count. That is the actual number of followers and it does not change as “Blocks” come in.
- The difference between those two “follower” totals will be the number of active blocks against the account. The same technique works if you similarly compare the “following” counts on the account.
If your account is already blocking the account you are trying to monitor this technique does not work.
The account in the example was eventually ”zeroed” – enough blocks had come in to zero out the followers and the follows. Once an account has been zeroed you can’t see any more blocks come in until the account is “swept” (more on that in a minute)
Over the past 8 weeks we at Trenches Labs have seen this ability come and go. We postulate there are “configuration management” (an IT term) issues at Twitter that cause this “feature” to disappear and reappear. At the time of publication the “feature” is there and has been for about the last 10 days
Sweeps: “Active Blocks” Are Not All Blocks Ever Issued On The Account
When we stumbled upon this ability to see active block totals we decided to test block count thresholds: How many blocks does it take to get suspended? To test things and help keep Twitter SPAM free (fat chance of that happening) we found newborn SPAM accounts. Both the #FollowBack and JustinBieber feeds are fertile ground for new SPAM accounts. So we found some and issued blocks against them to test suspension scenarios. In that process, and in the process of monitoring other accounts that we knew were under attack, we discovered what we call “sweeps.”
About every 15 minutes the Twitter system sweeps accounts and resets the active blocks on accounts in most cases. So if you are monitoring the differences in follower totals described above, at the 15 minute mark you will see those numbers match again after a “sweep.” If an account is experiencing a high volume of blocks, or blocks from people who have followed the account ( or that the account has mentioned), the count may not get reset.
Here we have an example of a sweep resetting a block count. The scenario starts with @shoq ordering that an account be silenced
— Shoq Value (@Shoq) July 25, 2012
A short time later we check back and the one active block has cleared:
So the single active block did not stick. Ultimately they got a block to stick and, once it did, multiple Blocks came in and then @MoronWatch issued a Block & Report for SPAM and @waryfisherman was suspended (and still is).
Dutifully the ironically named @MoronWatch then reported back to @shoq for a head-pat:
— MoronWatch (@moronwatch) July 25, 2012
It wasn’t like we didn’t see things coming and it isn’t like we didn’t try to warn the victim:
— Charlie Johnson (@SemperBanU) July 25, 2012
We call active blocks held over after Sweeps “Sticky Blocks.” Once an account has Sticky Blocks the likelihood of it getting suspended goes up dramatically, especially if the account keeps tweeting mentions, replies or the same link while having Sticky Blocks. Had @waryfisherman taken our advice and laid low he could have avoided the suspension. Sticky Blocks usually (but not always) require an action by the account holder to take hold. For instance, if the account holder mentions or replies to someone who just blocked him that block is likely to stick past the sweep. Once a block sticks these speech banning goons know to pile on the block and reports. If they don’t do it by the top of the hour a secondary sweep usually kicks in and they get to start over.
They Don’t Even Bother To Hide It
We at Trenches Labs have a trove of screenshots showing these scenarios repeated many times. We have captured many attacks where a leading activist makes some remark mentioning an account to be hit, and we watched the account go to TwitterGulag. Here are a handful of examples of Block and Report campaigns being initiated to stifle Free Speech:
Here @RJSt3rl1ng calls out a Block and Report campaign for “harassment.” The “harassment” is that Randy Hahn penetrated and then exposed @shoq’s borderline-criminal election manipulation organization that (among other things) astroturfed the #StopRush campaign and used Twitter (in clear violation of the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service) to inflict economic harm on Rush Limbaugh as a reprisal against free speech, all summarized here. [ ed - if you are a reader from Twitter Safety, you really need to read that link.]
— Who’s Your Damage?© (@Battle_Damage) July 28, 2012
Here is one of the countless, tiresome calls by Charles Johnson to have anyone who criticizes him banned from Twitter (we have about 100 of these from Lizardoid and simply picked this one at random):
@extremeliberal It’s a good idea to use the ‘Block and Report’ feature for them. That’s why it exists.
— Charles Johnson (@Green_Footballs) April 13, 2012
Then there is the laughable piety of GottaLaff (who uses overwrought passive aggressiveness to feign blithe humor while being wound tighter than a scrunchy worn by a Team USA Gymnast)
GottaLaff (or Laffy as she is called by Matt Edelstein’s emails where he tries to coordinate manipulation of Social Media) has been doing this for a very long while. Banning speech is an entitlement.
Feel free to block/report ArielHDavis too. Her foul mouth/company she keeps qualifies her. Must go for an hour or so. Need to disinfect.
— GottaLaff (@GottaLaff) August 27, 2010
There are a great many more which we will share in the fullness of time and in greater frequency should #TwitterGulag continue to exist. People might as well be warned about the defects in products they use.
The Subtle Contours Of Twitter Suspension Algorithms – And The Machine Guns That Make Them Obsolete
We have also captured the subtle contours of the Twitter suspension algorithms at work – we know that some factors hasten a trip to the Gulag. The age of the account. The follower / following ratio. The ratios of mentions and replies. The number of followers. These are some of the factors.
Disclosing those contours presents ethical and legal problems. You see, there are a hierarchy of algorithms that can get you suspended based on what you are doing and who is blocking you and how many blocks are coming in. That may constitute the “sophistication” that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo refers to here:
@xcitizen10 that is simply not true and not how spam suspension works. It’s more sophisticated than that and we suspend, not 3rd parties
— dick costolo (@dickc) June 28, 2012
Fortunately, those legal and ethical problems evaporated when we got a tip about a bug in TweetDeck. When we explored that bug and then compared the output of some previous results we received from some API testing we confirmed something startling. It makes that hierarchy of subtly contoured code completely irrelevant.
Ask yourself: what if you, an individual using just a single Twitter account, could issue an unlimited number of “Blocks” and “Block & Report for SPAM” reports? While most people think they can only issue one block, what if you had a “machine gun” to issue block after block in unlimited quantities? If you could do that and see if they “stick” after a sweep, you and a few others (because some algorithms actually require reports from several accounts) could suspend accounts at will. Any subtlety or sophistication in the suspension algorithms gets discarded when 100s of blocks stick to an account after a sweep. What if you could do just that – issue unlimited blocks? By yourself? Like issuing 67 Block and Reports in 5 minutes from one account?
You can. Stay tuned.