Gaining followers? Sure they’re not bots? Source: Shutterstock

Botmageddon and elections: Is there a connection?

THERE has been a sudden rise in the number of Twitter accounts in Southeast and East Asia. It’s something every news outlet is reporting, after Maya Gilliss-Chapman, a Silicon Valley based Cambodian tech noticed something odd with her account earlier this month.

Chapman said she gained 1,000 new followers since March – which prompted her to review the accounts.

She found that they were new accounts, all of them, with barely any personal characteristics like a photo or a real name, and little to no activity on the platform.

Her fears were soon echoed by other prominent Twitter users in other parts of the region, in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka – and even Indonesia. The phenomenon is now being referred to as “botmageddon”.

Since elections are due in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in the next two years, citizens are alarmed and concerned.

Is there really a hidden agenda?

To Twitter, the issue of fake users is extremely sensitive. The company’s main selling point is its number of active users, roughly 330 million – of which, in 2014, the company said only up to 8.5 percent are bots in a report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

In response to questions raised by users about the recent rise of bots in the area, the company told local media houses that engineers were looking into the accounts in question and will take action against any account found to be in violation of the Twitter Rules.

However, its spokespersons insist that the new users are organic.

All said and done, there is enough proof that activity on Twitter seems to be rising and more people are convinced that there’s a hidden agenda – a political one no less.

With the 14th general election in Malaysia approaching (polling day falls on May 9), it’s citizens demand action. Reports of how fake accounts are tweeting in support of candidates in the country are surfacing as well.

However, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has said that it will look into the activity of these accounts.

Social media experts are convinced that “action” by anyone other than Twitter authorities won’t make much of a difference, and that the company needs to be made accountable for the activity on their platform – the creation, management, and authentication of users included.

If regulators in the region fail to get them to take appropriate action, maybe a US congressional hearing will.

According to a recent article on Bloomberg:

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, who originally sought to schedule all three major social media company CEOs before Zuckerberg became the focus of the inquiries, said this week he may seek testimony from Pichai and Twitter Inc.’s Jack Dorsey.

He sent them letters the day of the Zuckerberg hearing asking about their data privacy practices and actions to counter foreign interference in US elections. He told them he wanted answers by April 25.

The bottom line is, the fears of citizens in Southeast and East Asia aren’t baseless.

During the 2016 Philippine presidential elections, for example, a large batch of organized bots and trolls appeared out of nowhere to support Rodrigo Duterte and win him the coveted title of president.

Something similar happened in Myanmar as well. After Myanmar’s military cracked the whip on the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, there was a wave of accounts that cropped up supporting the government on Twitter – A platform that wasn’t popular in the country up until the event.

Like the experts said, users can only identify the problem – but it’s up to the company (with a little nudge from the government) to take action. Maybe it’s time to really put artificial intelligence to use to solve this problem?