September 23, 2019
Facebook and Twitter both announced over the weekend that they had banned more developers and accounts following internal investigations.
Facebook said that it had removed 400 app developers, though not all of the apps necessarily posed a threat to users. Twitter, meanwhile, announced that it had removed almost 10,000 accounts from its platform from countries as far-flung as Ecuador, China, and Saudi Arabia.
Both sites have struggled to manage the spread of shady accounts and app developers in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the alleged actions of the Russian government in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Election. While the recent moves have been positive, it is still incredibly unlikely that either company will ever be able to curtail so-called “bad-faith actors” entirely.
Facebook's Shady App Devs
In a company blog post published on Friday, Facebook said that it had suspended apps associated with “about 400 developers.”
The apps in question were identified as suspicious due to “how many users they had and how much data they could access.” Facebook also identified apps based on “signals associated with an app's potential to abuse our policies.” Of course, Facebook could limit the access apps have to user data but we suspect that won't happen.
The company was keen to make clear, however, that app suspension “is not necessarily an indication that these apps were posing a threat to people.” In fact, many of the apps were still in their testing phase when Facebook suspended them. Many of the apps, Facebook claims, were taken down after the company requested information from the developers and they didn't comply.
Who did Facebook ban?
Of the roughly 400 app developers banned by Facebook, four were deserving of special attention in the company's blog post.
The developers of one app called myPersonality, which was active before 2012, supposedly hoovered-up the data of some 4 million people in its time. They then sold the user data to researchers and companies, with minimal data protections.
Korean company Rankwave had its apps banned after being the subject of a Facebook lawsuit in May, for failing to cooperate with investigations.
Facebook also suspended two companies for injecting phones with malware via apps on the Google Play Store. Hong Kong-based LionMobi and Singapore-based JediMobi attracted unsuspecting Facebook users to the Play Store to download malware-ridden apps from there. The malware was designed to mimic clicks on Facebook ads, giving the impression that real-world users had clicked on them, thereby earning the two companies more money.
Twitter's Misinformation Mission
Twitter is similarly struggling to get a handle on programs of coordinated misinformation on its platform. Like Facebook, Twitter is playing a game of account-suspension whack-a-mole, with shady tweeters.
In the most recent round of account culling, Twitter claims to have banned almost 10,000 accounts, including one linked to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The accounts have broadly been linked to campaigns of disinformation starting from one country, and targeting users in another.
Twitter claims to have found six accounts linked to Saudi Arabia's state-run media which were being used to amplify pro-government messages. The accounts presented themselves as neutral journalists while effectively shilling for the Saudi government.
Separately, Twitter also permanently suspended the account of Saud al-Qahtani for violating its “platform manipulation policies.” al-Qhatani was a former advisor to the Saudi royal court, and was implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
A network of 1,019 accounts was removed by Twitter earlier in the summer. These accounts were engaged in spreading content about the administration of Lenin Moreno, Ecuador's center-left President.
Twitter announced that it had taken down over 4,000 accounts which were designed to sow discord during the Hong Kong protests.
In Spain, Twitter removed 259 accounts designed to promote the conservative Partido Popular party. While they were only active for a short period of time, the accounts spam posting was enough to draw Twitter's ire.
UAE and Egypt
Twitter removed 271 accounts originating from the UAE and Egypt, which were targeting users in Qatar and Iran, as well as amplifying the Saudi government line. The accounts were supposedly run by a private company called DotDev, operating in the UAE and Egypt.
A further 4,248 accounts operating from the UAE, and targeting users in Qatar and Yemen, were removed. These accounts often used fake profiles and tweeted about the Yemeni Civil War and Houthi Movement.
Still Not Enough
Removing these accounts is, objectively, good. And Twitter and Facebook should be praised for taking the issue seriously. However, the sites should ideally try to begin preempting the spread of misinformation.
A more complicated sign-up process could limit the spread of bots and fake accounts, while algorithms could be changed to prevent promotion of inflammatory messages. But, sadly, as long as both companies are dependent on advertising and engagement-based profit models, they will always find themselves at odds with their accountants.
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