Twitter and the need to tackle automated, political hate in the Middle East

Twitter has been a huge hit in the Middle East; it has become the one place where everyone can share their views (image source: http://www.sustg.com)

I’ll admit it, Twitter is my favorite social media channel. I love that little blue bird and how it captures the moment. However, we live in a harsh environment in the region and Twitter isn’t without its issues.

I had the privilege to sit down with and talk to Twitter’s local management team recently. Two topics of concern came up: the first was pornography, which is illegal in the Gulf and which Twitter wants to keep off its network in the region; the second was religious extremism and terror-related content, affiliated to the likes of Islamic State, AlQaeda and others.

While I did in part acknowledge that both were issues to tackle, I didn’t fully agree that they were the most pressing problems for the social network. Pornography is much easier to find online, through the use of a VPN, than it is on any social media channel. With religious extremism, much of the conversation has moved onto dark social which cannot be monitored by governments.

Instead, I threw out a different idea. For me, Twitter is the place to come to for discussion and debate, a platform for use by all. However, recent cases have shown that some are automating conversations to dominate discussion.

An example was uncovered by Marc Owen Jones on his research into Bahrain following recent events there. His blog post, which is well worth your time, highlights a key issue facing Twitter when it comes to automated bots hijacking conversations.

While the notion of bot accounts is probably not news to anyone, the evidence here hopefully highlights that much online sectarian discourse is perhaps inflated by those groups or individuals with specific ideological agendas, and the means to do so. Of course we know PR and reputation management companies offer such services, yet their work is often done secretively and behind close doors. Would be interesting to find out who is behind this. It would also suggest that Twitter needs to better regulate spam.

While this isn’t the first time that social media channels have been used unethically in this region (during 2011 bloggers in certain countries were singled out and targeted for retribution through social media), the danger is that automated bots will become more common, taking over conversations and driving real users off Twitter. 

While Twitter has taken action following the work done by Marc Owen Jones, suspending up to 1800 accounts according to his blog post, the team need to be as proactive as possible to take these bots down to ensure that the platform is still a place that welcomes differing points of view. 

More than ever, we in the region need a place for discussion that is independent and welcomes genuine debate. It’d be a shame to see such actions driving people off Twitter and onto closed apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. 

Twitter can be a force to engage and promote debate in the region, and I hope that it remains so without such bots hijacking conversations for whatever political, sectarian purpose(s).

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