Twitter’s Huge Purge of Fake Accounts Could Lead to Decline in User Numbers

Twitter has more than doubled the rate of account suspensions since October of last year, as part of an ongoing effort to fight illegitimate accounts, including bots, trolls, and impersonators. The push continues the company’s efforts to exert control in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which triggered a series of scandals connected to propaganda, disinformation, and harassment on social media platforms. It might also lead to a decrease in the site’s usage statistics.

According to data obtained by the Washington Post and confirmed by Twitter, the company has suspended as many as 1 million accounts a day, with 70 million accounts suspended in May and June. A substantial portion of the suspension process is automated. Twitter told Gizmodo that automated systems were identifying and “challenging” about 10 million accounts per month as of May, a process that can require adding a phone number to an account flagged as “suspicious.” Twitter also says it has been blocking the creation of 50,000 suspected spam accounts per day.

Outside experts and Twitter itself have estimated that substantial numbers of users are fake, and sources told the Post that the purge could lead to a decline in Twitter’s monthly user number for the second quarter of this year. User numbers are widely seen as measures of the health of digital media platforms. Numbers that show even slower growth, much less an actual decline in users, can put serious downward pressure on a stock (see Snap, Inc. for a recent example). Twitter’s user numbers will likely be reported with quarterly earnings later this month.

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Though the purge of spam and bot accounts creates some headline risk for Twitter stock, it has the potential long-term benefit of improving the quality of users’ experience on the site. To give just one infuriating illustration, Twitter has until now failed to stem a torrent of fake accounts impersonating figures in and around the blockchain industry and trying to swindle users out of cryptocurrency. Whether or not those scams are actually effective, they’ve made Crypto Twitter a significantly less enjoyable place to spend time.

And while top-line user numbers have long been a common metric for measuring the success of digital platforms, Twitter’s focus now should be on how effective it is for its primary customers – advertisers, who generate roughly 85% of Twitter’s revenue. Broad user numbers are much less important to ad buyers than engagements, including clicks and sales, and Twitter appears to be keeping its advertisers happy. User growth had already slowed to 10% annualized in the first quarter of the year, down from 14% at the same time in 2017 – but revenue increased by 21% over the same period, and the stock has responded positively.

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