February 21, 2018 / 10:00 PM / in 9 months

Twitter bars tactics used by 'bots' to spread false stories

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) said on Wednesday it would no longer allow people to post identical messages from multiple accounts, cracking down on a tactic that Russian agents and others have allegedly used to make tweets or topics go viral.

FILE PHOTO -- People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

The San Francisco-based social network also said it would not allow people to use software to simultaneously perform other actions such as liking or retweeting from multiple accounts.

Twitter, known for freewheeling discussions in short messages, is under pressure from users and Western governments to stem the spread of false news and foreign propaganda, often done with the help of automated accounts known as bots.

Twitter bots disseminated propaganda before the 2016 U.S. elections and have continued to inflame U.S. politics under cover of anonymity, academic researchers and U.S. authorities say.

On Friday, the office of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies, including St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency known for trolling on social media. The court document said those accused “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

Twitter’s new restrictions are aimed at improving “information quality,” Yoel Roth of the company’s policy team said.

“These changes are an important step in ensuring we stay ahead of malicious activity targeting the crucial conversations taking place on Twitter - including elections in the United States and around the world,” Roth said in a statement.

Posting identical messages to multiple accounts, or simultaneously retweeting or liking a message from multiple accounts, could help vault something into Twitter’s trending list, giving a false impression of how viral it is among real people.

Twitter said it would give users until March 23 to comply before suspending accounts. It made an exception for bots of broad interest such as earthquake alerts.

Twitter has cracked down on other violations of its terms of service, including fake accounts by people inflating their following.

Some U.S. users with conservative politics complained their number of followers had gone down after Twitter asked them to verify their identity. #TwitterLockOut was among the trending topics.

Former Twitter user Jared Taylor, editor of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance, sued Twitter on Tuesday in state court in San Francisco, saying the decision to ban him violated California law governing “privately owned public forums.” Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Another company, privately held online publisher Medium, recently removed accounts belonging to far-right U.S. commentators including Mike Cernovich, who said on his Twitter account on Wednesday that Medium was acting unlawfully.

Medium said it would not discuss individual accounts, but a recent rule change banned people from spreading “disinformation.”

Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by David Gregorio

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