Twitter is purging accounts that were trying to evade prior suspensions

Twitter announced this afternoon it will begin booting accounts off its service from those who have tried to evade their account suspension. The company says that the accounts in question are users who have been previously suspended on Twitter for their abusive behavior, or for trying to evade a prior suspension. These bad actors have been able to work around Twitter’s attempt to remove them by setting up another account, it seems.

The company says the new wave of suspensions will hit this week and will continue in the weeks ahead, as it’s able to identify others who are “attempting to Tweet following an account suspension.” 

Twitter’s announcement on the matter – which came in the form of a tweet – was light on details. We asked the company for more information. It’s unclear, for example, how Twitter was able to identify the same persons had returned to Twitter, how many users will be affected by this new ban, or what impact this will have on Twitter’s currently stagnant user numbers.

Twitter has not responded to our questions.

The company has been more recently focused on aggressively suspending accounts, as part of the effort to stem the flow of disinformation, bots, and abuse on its service. The Washington Post, for example, said last month that Twitter had suspended as many as 70 million accounts between the months of May and June, and was continuing in July at the same pace. The removal of these accounts didn’t affect the company’s user metrics, Twitter’s CFO later clarified.

Even though they weren’t a factor, Twitter’s user base is shrinking. The company actually lost a million monthly active users in Q2, with 335 million overall users and 68 million in the U.S. In part, Twitter may be challenged in growing its audience because it’s not been able to get a handle on the rampant abuse on its platform, and because it makes poor enforcement decisions with regard to its existing policies.

For instance, Twitter is under fire right now for the way it chooses who to suspend, as it’s one of the few remaining platforms that hasn’t taken action against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The Outline even hilariously (???) suggested today that we all abandon Twitter and return to Tumblr. (Disclosure: Oath owns Tumblr and TC. I don’t support The Outline’s plan. Twitter should just fix itself, even if that requires new leadership.)

In any event, today’s news isn’t about a change in how Twitter will implement its rules, but rather in how it will enforce the bans it’s already chosen to enact.

In many cases, banned users would simply create a new account using a new email address and then continue to tweet. Twitter’s means of identifying returning users has been fairly simplistic in the past. To make sure banned users didn’t come back, it used information like the email, phone and IP address to identify them.

For it to now be going after a whole new lot of banned accounts who have been attempting to avoid their suspensions, Twitter may be using the recently acquired technology from anti-abuse firm Smyte. At the time of the deal, Twitter had praised Smyte’s proactive anti-abuse systems, and said it would soon put them to work.

This system may pick up false positives, of course – and that could be why Twitter noted that some accounts could be banned in error in the weeks ahead.

More to come…

Twitter Lite expands to 21 more countries, adds push notifications

Twitter announced today its Twitter Lite app is expanding to 21 more countries, which makes the data-saving app available to more than 45 countries in total. The app was introduced last year with the goal of bringing in more users from emerging markets to Twitter. Similar to other data-saving apps, like Facebook Lite or YouTube Go, Twitter Lite is designed to load faster on slower network connections, like 2G and 3G, and also has a smaller footprint, so it takes up less space on the phone.

The app was first launched as a test in the Philippines in September, before rolling out to a couple dozen more countries in November.

Twitter’s hope is that by addressing the needs of those low-bandwith users in international markets, the company could help increase its overall user base, which has remained fairly stagnant.

Today, the company is making the app available to 21 countries, including:  Argentina, Belarus, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Morocco, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Romania, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

These join the other markets where Twitter Lite has been available, such as: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Malaysia, Nigeria, Nepal, Panama, Peru, Serbia, El Salvador, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia, Tanzania and Venezuela, in addition to the Philippines.

The app offers a variety of features for those on slower or unreliable networks. For example, Lite users can turn on a Data saver mode that allows them to control which images or video load when browsing the network. Once enabled, you can load this content by tapping “Load Image” or “Load video,” as needed.

The app is also under 3MB in size, so it will load more quickly on slower networks.

And like Twitter, the app includes features like Bookmarks, a darker “Night mode” theme, threads, and starting today, push notifications.

The company in November claimed Twitter Lite led to a greater than 50% increase in tweets, and noted that 80% of its then 330 million monthly users were outside the U.S. That percentage remains roughly the same – as of July, Twitter had a total of 335 million users, with 68 million of those in the U.S.

However, the company isn’t growing that quickly outside the U.S., despite Twitter Lite. Also as of July 2018, we noted the company’s international audience had only grown by a modest 3.5% over the past year.

An expansion of the Twitter Lite app will certainly open up Twitter to more people, but it’s not clear there’s much demand.

The app is available as a free download on Google Play.

The DNC’s lawyers subpoena WikiLeaks with a tweet

In a very unusual move, WikiLeaks has been subpoenaed via Twitter. In a tweet on Friday, a law firm representing the Democratic National Convention in its civil lawsuit against WikiLeaks and other defendants served legal documents formally notifying the non-profit that it is being sued. The lawsuit also names a long list of other people and organizations, including the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, that the DNC claims worked together to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

The Twitter account has no other tweets and appears to have been set up this month by Cohen Milstein, the DNC’s law firm, for the purpose of serving papers to WikiLeaks.

The DNC filed a motion in federal court in Manhattan last month, asking for permission to subpoena WikiLeaks on Twitter after several unsuccessful attempts by email. The DNC argued that the WikiLeaks Twitter account is very active and an April tweet appeared to confirm that the organization was aware of the lawsuit.

Though using Twitter to serve legal documents is unusual, it has legal precedent, with the DNC noting that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California had previously decided that Twitter could be used to notify defendants who had an active account.

In addition, another social media network, Facebook, has also been used to serve legal documents before.

WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, who is currently living under asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The DNC lawsuit argues that the massive trove of internal DNC emails released by WikiLeaks in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, including ones written by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta, was part of a conspiracy to damage Clinton’s presidential run and “destablilize the U.S. political environment.”

Some Infowars tweets vanished today, but Twitter didn’t remove them

A handful of tweets and videos that appear to have been cited in the choice to remove Alex Jones from Facebook and YouTube vanished from Twitter on Thursday after being called out in a CNN piece focused on the company’s hypocrisy.

Twitter confirmed to TechCrunch that it did not remove the tweets in question and that someone affiliated with Alex Jones and Infowars or with access to those accounts is behind the removal. The tweets in question spanned the Infowars brand, including accusations that Sandy Hook was staged by crisis actors, slurs against transgender people and a video asserting that Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg is a Nazi.

All of the tweets CNN linked are no longer available, suggesting that Jones might be trying to walk a narrow line on the platform, keeping most of the Infowars content up even as users and reporters surface some of its most objectionable moments. We reached out to Infowars for the reasoning behind taking down the posts and will update this story when we hear more.

On Wednesday in an internal memo that was later tweeted, Twitter’s VP of trust & safety made the claim that if Jones had posted the same content on Twitter that had resulted in action on other platforms, Twitter would have acted, too.

“… At least some of the content Alex Jones published on other platforms (e.g. Facebook and YouTube) that led them to taking enforcement actions against him would also have violated our policies had he posted it on Twitter,” Twitter’s Del Harvey said. “Had he done so, we would have taken action against him as well.”

On Thursday, CNN called Twitter’s bluff. The news site found that the same content that got Jones and Infowars booted from other platforms “were still live on Twitter as of the time this article was published,” according to CNN.

In spite of the missing tweets, at the time of writing, the accounts of both Infowars and Alex Jones remained online and tweeting. In fact, just 30 minutes ago, Infowars accused former president Obama of a “deep state” scheme to purge Infowars from tech platforms.

Now even YouPorn has banned Alex Jones, but he’s still on Twitter

Streaming adult video site YouPorn, announced today that it has banned Alex Jones from its platform, following actions against the conspiracy-monger by tech companies including Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify—but notably, not Twitter. Before you go “wtf,” there were indeed (non-porn) Alex Jones videos on YouPorn, because people often take advantage of lax copyright policies on porn sites to upload non-pornographic content. YouPorn said it’s also removed spoof videos of Jones and will not allow him to host any content on the platform moving forward.

In a statement, YouPorn vice president Charlie Hughes said “Following news that YouTube, Spotify and Facebook have banned Alex Jones from their platforms, team YouPorn is joining in solidarity and announces we are banning his content as well. As one of the largest user-generated content platforms in the world, we have already removed his videos that have violated our terms of service. As an inclusive platform, hate has no place on YouPorn.”

It’s easy to dismiss YouPorn’s ban as a publicity grab, but it underscores the fact that Twitter’s lack of action is became increasingly notable, even though last December it said it would take a harder stance against hate speech. Alex Jones’ verified Twitter profile, with 838,000 followers, is still up, with one of his recent tweets complaining about “being banned on the Internet.”

For those that need a refresher, Alex Jones frequently broadcasts hate speech and played a major role in propagating some of the most harmful conspiracy theories in recent years, including PIzzagate and the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. His support of theories that the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings were faked resulted in harassment against the families of victims (Jones is currently trying to get a defamation lawsuit brought against him by some Sandy Hook parents dismissed).

Yesterday, YouTube removed Alex Jones’ channel, which had 2.4 million subscribers, for violating its community guidelines, after issuing it a strike last month. On the same day, Apple removed Alex Jones’ podcasts from iTunes, following similar actions from Spotify and Stitcher, and Facebook removed four Infowars pages for violating its policies against graphic violence and hate speech. Pinterest also took down Infowars’ profile following an inquiry from Mashable.

This now makes Twitter an outlier, one that apparently has lower standards than YouPorn, which, after all, simply streams adult videos instead of arguably sheltering hate speech and bullies. With many of his other social media outlets removed or suspended, Jones now has two main platforms: the Infowars site and Twitter.

Twitter has promised to do a better job of protecting users, but a lot of its actions come across as more hemming and hawing while real damage is being done through its platform (for example, President Donald Trump retweeting Islamophobic posts from the deputy leader of hate group Britain First’s account, which Twitter only suspended three weeks later despite massive uproar and concern that it would trigger more violence and harassment against Muslims).

With Apple (now America’s largest company by market capitalization), some of the biggest social media platforms and even YouPorn taking a stand against Alex Jones and Infowars, the pressure on Twitter is increasing. TechCrunch has reached out to Twitter and Infowars for comment.

Twitter will suspend repeat offenders posting abusive comments on Periscope live streams

As part of Twitter’s attempted crackdown on abusive behavior across its network, the company announced on Friday afternoon a new policy facing those who repeatedly harass, threaten or otherwise make abusive comments during a Periscope broadcaster’s live stream. According to Twitter, the company will begin to more aggressively enforce its Periscope Community Guidelines by reviewing and suspending accounts of habitual offenders.

The plans were announced via a Periscope blog post and tweet that said everyone should be able to feel safe watching live video.

Currently, Periscope’s comment moderation policy involves group moderation.

That is, when one viewer reports a comment as “abuse,” “spam” or selects “other reason,” Periscope’s software will then randomly select a few other viewers to take a look and decide if the comment is abuse, spam or if it looks okay. The randomness factor here prevents a person (or persons) from using the reporting feature to shut down conversations. Only if a majority of the randomly selected voters agree the comment is spam or abuse does the commenter get suspended.

However, this suspension would only disable their ability to chat during the broadcast itself — it didn’t prevent them from continuing to watch other live broadcasts and make further abusive remarks in the comments. Though they would risk the temporary ban by doing so, they could still disrupt the conversation, and make the video creator — and their community — feel threatened or otherwise harassed.

Twitter says that accounts that repeatedly get suspended for violating its guidelines will soon be reviewed and suspended. This enhanced enforcement begins on August 10, and is one of several other changes Twitter is making to its product across Periscope and Twitter focused on user safety.

To what extent those changes have been working is questionable. Twitter may have policies in place around online harassment and abuse, but its enforcement has been hit-or-miss. But ridding its platform of unwanted accounts — including spam, despite the impact to monthly active user numbers — is something the company must do for its long-term health. The fact that so much hate and abuse is seemingly tolerated or overlooked on Twitter has been an issue for some time, and the problem continues today. And it could be one of the factors in Twitter’s stagnant user growth. After all, who willingly signs up for harassment?

The company is at least attempting to address the problem, most recently by acquiring the anti-abuse technology provider Smyte. Its transition to Twitter didn’t go so well, but the technology it offers the company could help Twitter address abuse at a greater scale in the future.

Twitter vows to continue spam fight despite negative impact on user numbers

Twitter has no intention of easing up on its fight against spam users and other factors that jeopardize the “health” of its service, despite the approach costing it three million in ‘lost’ monthly active users.

Investor panic sent Twitter’s stock price down by nearly 20 percent in early trading today following its latest financial report. Twitter posted a record profit of $100 million for Q2, but its monthly user count dropped by one million, with its U.S. number in particular down to 68 million from 69 million in the previous quarter.

The company said on an earnings call that efforts aimed at “prioritizing the health of the platform” combined with other factors cost it three million monthly users — a number which could have turned the user decline into a more favorable story of growth.

The company is anticipating another drop in the next quarter as it continues to double down on fighting spam and bots on its service. That isn’t the only factor reducing numbers, however. A reassessment of its paid partnerships with carriers worldwide — which help bring in and retain new users — in response to the development of its Lite app is also forecast to reduce MAU.

Investors may be concerned, but Twitter is bullish that an increase in the quality of users is ultimately better in the long run that the short-term gain of higher numbers.

Answering questions on an earnings call, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the clean-up strategy would be ongoing as Twitter intends to “build [concerns for platform health] into our DNA.”

“When we do focus on removing some of the burden of people blocking/muting, we see positive results in our numbers,” he added. “We believe this will encourage our growth story.”

Yet the execs also played down the material impact by explaining that “many” of the “tens of millions” of removed accounts were already not counted within Twitter’s MAU metrics. Some, they added, had never been counted because they had been identified as questionable right from when they were registered.

Twitter explained as much in its earnings release:

When we suspend accounts, many of the removed accounts have already been excluded from MAU or DAU, either because the accounts were already inactive for more than one month at the time of suspension, or because they were caught at signup and were never included in MAU or DAU. We will continue to work hard to improve the health of the platform, providing updates on our progress at least quarterly, and prioritizing health efforts regardless of the near-term impact on metrics, as we believe the best driver of long-term growth of Twitter as a daily utility is a healthy conversation.

On the positive side, the executives played up the development of overseas revenue, which grew 44 percent year-on-year and now accounts for 48 percent of Twitter’s total income.

Twitter posts record $100M profit but loses 1M users

The social media apocalypse is on us this week. Days after Facebook’s stock took a record $123 billion plunge on a poor earnings report, Twitter’s shares are down nearly 20 percent after the company announced falling users numbers.

The microblogging service recorded a drop of one million monthly users in Q2, with 335 million overall and 68 million in the U.S.. International users stayed consistent, with U.S. numbers down from 69 million in the previous quarter.

Bloomberg reported that Twitter’s share price sunk by 17 percent in early trading following the earnings announcement.

The market seems spooked that Twitter has failed to grow in the U.S.. Indeed, one year ago it recorded 68 million users on home turf, and while it has grown its international presence by a fairly modest 3.5 percent over that period, there are doubts as to whether Twitter can increase its audience. The company itself said it expects to see its monthly active user count drop by “mid-single-digit millions.”

Twitter has increased its efforts finding and suspending fake accounts, which is said to have doubled over the past year, but it also said that it didn’t expect that to impact users numbers this quarter.

“When we suspend accounts, many of the removed accounts have already been excluded from MAU or DAU, either because the accounts were already inactive for more than one month at the time of suspension, or because they were caught at signup and were never included in MAU or DAU,” Twitter further explained in its release.

The company did say, though, that its work with SMS carriers and reallocation of resources, are the reasons why it is forecasting more user number declines.

While Twitter can (just about argue) that its daily user number grew by 11 percent in the quarter — a little higher than 10 percent in Q1 — the company doesn’t actually disclose this number.

The stock drop will be frustrating for executives because, in its favor, Twitter had a record quarter of profit. GAAP net income came in at $100 million with revenue climbing 24 percent year-on-year to reach $711 million. Adjusted EBITDA came in at $265 million — Twitter is predicting it will decline to $215-$235 million in the next quarter.

That profit was above analyst forecasts of $70 million but, following Facebook’s epic crash this week, investors want to see growth potential… and that means more users. Unfortunately, that’s Twitter’s Achilles heel.

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James Gunn fired from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 3’ after offensive tweets resurface

Disney fired director James Gunn from the set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the company confirmed at Comic-Con this week. The move came after highly offensive joke tweets dating from between 2008 and 2011 resurfaced. The tweets, which have since been deleted, make light of topics ranging from molestation and rape to pedophilia.

“The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him,” Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Gunn, for his part, acknowledged the distasteful statements. The director, who helmed the first two installments of the Marvel franchise, tweeted a multi-part apology/explanation for the old tweets, in which he refers to himself as a “provocateur” during his early career.

“I used to make a lot of offensive jokes,” Gunn wrote. “I don’t anymore. I don’t blame my past self for this, but I like myself more and feel like a more full human being and creator today. Love you to you all.”

Prior to helming blockbuster superhero films, Gunn made a name directing films for Troma, the comedically offensive, aggressively B-movie studio behind films like The Toxic Avenger. The tweets resurfaced after being promoted by right-wing personalities like Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich.

Gunn has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration and took to Twitter to weigh in on actor/director Mark Duplass’ recent tweets about conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. 

Update: Gunn has issued a statement that reflects and expands on his earlier Twitter apology,

My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”

“Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.

Facebook, Google and more unite to let you transfer data between apps

The Data Transfer Project is a new team-up between tech giants to let you move your content, contacts, and more across apps. Founded by Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft, the DTP today revealed its plans for an open source data portability platform any online service can join. While many companies already let you download your information, that’s not very helpful if you can’t easily upload and use it elsewhere — whether you want to evacuate a social network you hate, back up your data somewhere different, or bring your digital identity along when you try a new app. The DTP’s tool isn’t ready for use yet, but the group today laid out a white paper for how it will work.

Creating an industry standard for data portability could force companies to compete on utility instead of being protected by data lock-in that traps users because it’s tough to switch services. The DTP could potentially offer a solution to a major problem with social networks I detailed in April: you can’t find your friends from one app on another. We’ve asked Facebook for details on if and how you’ll be able to transfer your social connections and friends’ contact info which it’s historically hoarded.

From porting playlists in music streaming services to health data from fitness trackers to our reams of photos and videos, the DTP could be a boon for startups. Incumbent tech giants maintain a huge advantage in popularizing new functionality because they instantly interoperate with a user’s existing data rather than making them start from scratch. Even if a social networking startup builds a better location sharing feature, personalized avatar, or payment system, it might be a lot easier to use Facebook’s clone of it because that’s where your profile, friends, and photos live.

If the DTP gains industry-wide momentum and its founding partners cooperate in good faith rather than at some bare minimum level of involvement, it could lower the barrier for people to experiment with new apps. Meanwhile, the tech giants could argue that the government shouldn’t step in to regulate them or break them up because DTP means users are free to choose whichever app best competes for their data and attention.