Social Media McCarthyism: Twitter's Witch Hunt

Kevin Thomas Tully
Kevin Thomas Tully President, KTT Marketing Solutions

Posted on October 31st 2013

Social Media McCarthyism: Twitter's Witch Hunt

With Halloween (and an impending IPO) fast upon us, perhaps it’s fitting that Twitter is quietly engaging in a modern-day witch hunt, whereby user accounts are being indiscriminately purged, sometimes within days of creation, and seemingly in violation of the social media giant’s accepted practices.

In what can only best be described as Social Media McCarthyism, this deliberate and systematic cleansing of 218 million active users ensnares unsuspecting account holders with aggressive tactics reminiscent of the infamous 1950s-era Red Scare.

Much like the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, Twitter callously acts without proper regard for evidence, targeting both newly created and long-established accounts by imposing follower limits and outright suspensions based upon infractions only Twitter can identify.

These spurious account suspensions and randomly imposed follower ceilings appear to be nothing more than Twitter’s thinly veiled attempt to rid the social media site of perceived spam accounts in an effort to maintain continuity and eliminate any hint of downtime leading up to its mid-November IPO.

A disruption in service would have a deleterious effect upon the projected preliminary price range of $17 to $20 per share for Twitter’s initial public offering, an estimate that values the San Francisco, CA-based company at $10.9 billion.

According to Twitter’s published policies and procedures, Twitter doesn’t “limit the number of followers you can have. However, we do monitor how aggressively users follow other users.”  

What does that mean?  Within one day of establishing a new user account for my local collegiate alumni association, Twitter decreed that this fledgling account was detrimental to its stock price, I mean, business model. The account (@JHU_York) was suspended in less than 24 hours!

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Twitter support sent me a form e-mail stating that this account was suspended for aggressive following behavior, in violation of Twitter’s “best practices.” For some unknown reason, however, my two original tweets remained visible. And I could always follow Oprah, Pitbull, and almighty Twitter itself, if the account had not been suspended, that is.

It’s worth noting that Twitter’s best practices also require new users to follow at least 10 established accounts upon initial registration. This includes a step to “find and follow 5 well-known people.”

I followed 12 accounts in total and was smacked down. Branded a spammer. An aggressive, unrepentant rule breaker. Could it be I just chose poorly? For the love of Pitbull...

But wait, there’s more. Of all the super users, celebrities, and verified accounts on Twitter, there has not been one report of account suspension, follower limitation, or other unspecified adjustments that merit a trip to Twitter, Inc. CEO Dick Costolo’s Bay Area office for a stern talking-to, or rather, tweeting-to.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. According to Twitter:


 Finally, follower violations are one tactic that spammers often use to abuse Twitter. Monitoring for abuse is one way to reduce spam on Twitter.


Another abusive tactic is strong-arming your user base with unsubstantiated account limits and suspensions, enacted under the guise of monitoring in order to protect your stock price.

Even Pitbull knows that’s spammy.


Kevin Thomas Tully

Kevin Thomas Tully

President, KTT Marketing Solutions

Kevin Thomas Tully is a communications strategist and consultant living in Pennsylvania. Connect with him on Twitter @kevinttully.

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Comments

Avtar Ram Singh
Posted on October 31st 2013 at 12:19PM

It's ridiculous to "force" users to follow established accounts. What if I'm joining Twitter just so that I can share small snippets of my life with the 50 - 60 friends that I have on Twitter and I don't want to see BuzzFeed's latest post on Ryan Gosling GIFs?

This can be very easily interpreted as Twitter saying that they're a platform where people follow brands for updates and that's it. Following your friends and engaging with them is an option, but only after you retweet this image of a Halloween themed Double Cheeseburger that Burger King put up.

Kevin Thomas Tully
Posted on October 31st 2013 at 12:55PM

Thank you for your comment, Avtar. 

I'd like to believe that Twitter's intent requiring new users to follow established accounts is a proven method for easing neophytes into the user experience. After all, you can unfollow anyone at any time.

According to Twitter, new users should "follow a handful of accounts to create a customized stream of information on your homepage."

That said, who to follow should be a matter of personal choice, not a requirement for sign-up, regardless of any actions that may be taken later to undo Big Brother's edict.

Avtar Ram Singh
Posted on October 31st 2013 at 12:57PM

While following accounts to establish a stream of updates and information is a good practice - one that Twitter should notify new users about, it's the "following established" users part that seems very sketchy to me.

HollisThomases
Posted on October 31st 2013 at 3:14PM

Timely post, Kevin. My tweeps and I continue to be amazed at Twitter's "wonkiness," as we call it, particularly with respect to disallowing direct messages to people we KNOW follow us (i.e. we've been following and tweeting each other for years now, but suddenly we can't send a DM?!).

And then there is the issue of the weird apparent ceiling cap on Followers, i.e. how many people are following you at any given time.  I know a number of people, myself included, who routinely acquire new Followers yet seem to be stuck just below a threshold. Oddly enough, however, some of these other folks have been easily able to overcome the threshold by paying Twitter for a Promoted Account campaign. Now, isn't that interesting?

Seems like Twitter's playing it gray with their rules...unless you're a celebrity, eh?

Kevin Thomas Tully
Posted on October 31st 2013 at 6:46PM

Thank you for your perceptive insights, Hollis.  It would be nice to believe that everyone was operating under the same guidelines and on a level playing field in the social media arena; however, Twitter has proven this is not so.

The basic premise of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is that if you have something interesting to say to your audience and you interact with them on a regular basis, you can potentially reap whatever rewards (status, financial, fun, etc.) you seek.

At this time, Twitter may be far too concerned about promoting the brand of Twitter – playing it gray with their rules, as you so eloquently stated – at the expense of those who helped to build its brand: Twitter’s core user base.