In our prior installments on Twitter Gulag, Trenches Labs exposed the mechanisms used by partisan activists to manipulate Twitter safety algorithms for the purpose of silencing opponents.
Readers will remember that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had categorically denied that any such activity was taking place and that his systems were too “sophisticated” to allow such manipulation.
@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
Yet, as this graph of Topsy tracked “mentions that matter” shows, Twitter Gulag was and is real.
That graph shows the relative use of the hash tag “#TwitterGulag.” For those unfamiliar, when someone uses that hash tag on twitter it is most often to alert others that a user was unfairly suspended for expressing an opinion. When Twitter Gulag was exposed to daylight starting with our first article on July 30th the graph shows the incidents reported on the TwitterGulag hashtag went down significantly (the July 30th ‘spike’ was largely due to our 3 articles being tweeted to a wide audience and generating discussion on the hashtag).
Using only the graph one could conclude one of two things:
- Twitter altered the algorithms -or-
- User behavior changed
Fortunately we fired up our servers and ran tests. Testing showed that Twitter rapidly closed the ability to see the blocks being reported against an account. It took them a couple more days, but they also plugged the ability to issue multiple blocks from a single account against another and make them stick past “sweeps.” Lastly they tweaked the thresholds on the Reply Spam algorithms. (Unfamiliar with those terms? Here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our #TwitterGulag series that explain those terms and how Twitter suspension algorithms are structured.)
So Twitter fixed something that they avowed didn’t exist. Fine by us – we will accept small victories without acknowledgement when the result is freer speech.
Unfortunately, Spammers caught on to the changes in the reply algorithm and started to go back to aggressive reply SPAM. Twitter recently throttled up the thresholds on that algorithm to go after those Spammers and protect their service, as is their right. One hopes that they will re-engineer that algorithm to be a bit more sophisticated without bogging down their servers.
Our recommendation is that people get in the habit of assuming Reply Traps exist and behave accordingly. It will just have to be a hazard of tweeting for now. Perhaps Dick Costolo can assure folks that the algorithm will be refined.
Regardless, one can see the result of Reply Traps returning to Twitter – the recent “hump” of #TwitterGulag mentions shows that leftist suppression of speech is coming back into play.
But Reply Traps aren’t all of that hump. Mass suspensions - suspensions from 50 or more reports coming in on an account in a certain period of time – are rising again. Previously, such suspensions could be launched by an individual who could issue as many Block & Reports as he liked from the same account (See Part 3). Such suspensions are returning, but not because large groups of individuals are being organized per se – Allow us to introduce The Twitter Nuke.
The Twitter Nuke and the Dawn of 5G Warfare
We are introducing a series on 5G Warfare. The Twitter Nuke is a small aspect of the new Social Media environment you are now in. Politically, Social Media is both threatening and an opportunity. You may not have sensed the “walls” moving but they are. 5G Warfare is redefining information flows in U.S. politics. The Trenches has assembled a timeline of events that shows the evolution of what was explicitly named “5G Warfare.” The Twitter Nuke is a single spot on that timeline.
Who is 5G Warfare aimed at? You.
To describe 5G, let’s start with The Twitter Nuke – which in itself is easy to describe. It is a computer system where multiple accounts of “real” activist user IDs can be loaded. The Nuke can then draw on those IDs at various times to do various things. From the standpoint of #TwitterGulag, those accounts can be synchronized to do things like Block and Report an individual user and get him suspended (e.g. sent to Twitter Gulag). We have already covered the mechanisms within Twitter that manage mass Block & Report suspensions – they have been known for some time but just not as precisely as we were able to document them.
But the Nuke can do so much more – it can orchestrate what appears to be grassroots support for an idea. It can astroturf.
For example, it can retweet a particular tweet to make it more influential (or make its author more influential), or it can move direct messages between activist accounts to get actual users “on message” and enforce message discipline around a hashtag and get that hashtag to trend. The user accounts that the Nuke draws on don’t have to be “socks” that are controlled by the computer. The power of the Nuke is that it can make posts to an account while a real person is using that account. Think of it as having an extra arm. A robotic one. Remotely controlled.
Does such a thing exist? Yes. We built one. It works great – we have used it in a lab environment and a little bit during a college football game (OK – we had a Lulz plan for that particular use but decided to scrap it – Michigan fans were being manhandled by Alabama as it was, so gulaging the entire #GoBlue hashtag was aborted. Plus, @DickC had fixed much of the Gulag so we weren’t going to set his Alumni Association on his ass).
We built the Nuke in about 30 man hours – the Block and Report stuff was done in the first five. The rest was adding features like the DM routing, the retweeting and a few other things like using a spread of proxies to avoid blacklisting on Twitter’s servers.
The time to do this was short because we had a model – an existing Nuke built for and used by a collection of Progressive, Labor and Democratic Party groups & politicians largely out of D.C. and Chicago. We imitated what they already had and have employed. How did we know about this model? Someone bragged about it. Someone had described parts of it to others as he boasted about it. In several different forums. One simply had to link the different boasts together to get the full picture of the thing.
The Nuke exists – they just don’t call it a Nuke. We fully expect the suspension activity that the Nuke can be deployed for to ramp up in October so as to silence their opposition. Which is why ours will stay idle but is at the ready for mass deployment among 3rd parties using multiple servers in various jurisdictions – in case the aforementioned group fully employs mass suspensions on theirs. We will be watching that #TwitterGulag graph for statistically significant departures from the mean. And we are letting Twitter know well in advance so that any changes they may want to make on suspension policy can be ready. After all Dick Costolo, “the tweets still must flow.”
The Reality of 5G – Our next post
The Nuke is just one aspect of 5G Warfare. Our series on 5G will start with a speech by Richard Trumka at Netroots Nation in 2009 (including an important Freudian slip at 3:59 in Part 1) which coincided with an article by a Harvard Academic pleading for President Obama to adopt 5G Warfare to battle the Tea Party (see rule number 10 – it means you have a target painted on your forehead). We have hundreds of hours of research to cover with various groups and constituencies involved. To make the story accessible to readers we will tell the story from the perspective of one of its foot soldiers – a familiar name – and build out the series and timeline from there.
Is 5G a massive conspiracy? Think of it more of an evolution in political warfare – an adaptation of hyper partisanship to the hyper text of the Internet. The name “5G” was given to it by an academic, but it doesn’t really have a father or a mother – no guy behind the curtain pulling at the levers. It is a different game than what you know Politics to be – different rules – different effects.
All the same, you are the target. Explicitly. So you need to be armed with what techniques are being used to manipulate opinion formation. As important as it was to know what “spin” was in the 90s, it is more important that you know 5G going forward.
It is a new game.