Perhaps a healthier Twitter is one with smaller follower counts—even if that comes as a blow to your ego. That’s what the company is hoping, anyway. Over the last several months, Twitter has embarked on a renewed push to fight abuse and spam, as well as encourage healthy debates and conversations, and on Wednesday the social network announced it was expanding that effort to profiles it has locked for suspicious behavior. Over the next week, it will remove these profiles from users’ follower counts.
Twitter says it’s removing locked profiles so that users’ follower counts more accurately reflect the number of real people who choose to follow their tweets. Twitter locks an account as a penalty for violating its policies or when it detects a sudden change in behavior, like a significant uptick in replies, tweeting misleading links, or if a large number of people suddenly block the account. As a security protection, Twitter also sometimes locks an account when its credentials have been posted or leaked elsewhere online.
A locked account can’t post tweets and isn’t exposed to ads until the owner verifies that everything is OK. If no one verifies the account, it remains locked. Twitter says tens of millions of locked accounts will be affected by the change, representing about 6 percent of follows across the site. Most people will lose less than four followers, but “others with larger follower counts will experience a more significant drop,” Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy, and trust and safety at Twitter, wrote in a blog post announcing the change. If a locked account is reclaimed by its owner, they will also regain all of their follows.
Locked accounts are different from bots and spammers; Twitter believes that most were created by real people, but as Gadde explains, Twitter “cannot confirm that the original person who opened the account still has control and access to it.” In the past, spammers and other malicious actors have taken control of accounts—especially those that are verified—in order to carry out scams or spread misinformation.
Twitter announced it was limiting the influence of locked accounts less than a week after The Washington Post reported that the social network had deleted 70 million fake or suspicious accounts in May and June. The removal of so many fake accounts may have impacted Twitter’s number of monthly active users, according to the report.
That might spell trouble for shareholders; Twitter’s share price slumped after news broke that it was purging so many fakes.
In Wednesday’s blog post, Gadde said the change to locked accounts won’t affect Twitter’s monthly or daily active user count. Locked accounts that haven’t reset their password in more than a month aren’t included in those metrics, according to the company.
Removing tens of millions of fake accounts might look like a red flag to investors, but it’s likely a welcome change for Twitter’s users. The social network has long been plagued by groups of bots and fraudulent accounts, including a notorious Russian-linked network that sowed chaos for years, culminating in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Over a year after Donald Trump took office, researchers discovered that Russian-linked bots were still tweeting. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group that tracks Russian disinformation efforts, says Kremlin-linked bots have tried to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller and influence the gun-control debate in the wake of mass shootings.
It’s not just Russian bad actors that Twitter has had to contend with; bots, automation, and spam have long been a part of Twitter’s DNA. The Pew Research Center found, for example, that two-thirds of links to popular websites on Twitter are posted by automated accounts. (That includes legitimate accounts that schedule tweets through an automated service.)
Follower counts have also consistently been manipulated: Comedian Joe Mande famously bought 1 million fake followers back in 2013. A New York Times investigation in January found that plenty of other celebrities and public figures have quietly purchased followers to appear more influential than they really are.
The presence of so many fake followers makes it difficult to gauge how popular a given Twitter account really is, but it also drains some of the joy from Twitter. It can be impossible to determine whether a new follower likes your tweets, or is just a bot trying to appear legitimate.
In removing locked profiles from people’s follower counts, Twitter has found a simple way to cut down on some of that noise. The company says that follower accounts may continue to change more regularly, as Twitter continues to figure out what it means to be in better health.