To the letter: is Twitter really blocking accounts which use Cyrillic?

To the letter: is Twitter really blocking accounts which use Cyrillic?

23 May 2018

Tech website The Verge released an article on Tuesday claiming social media site Twitter was unfairly blocking the accounts of Bulgarian users after confusing them with Kremlin-linked bots.

The reason behind this wave of suspensions? Users are claiming that, since both Russian and Bulgarian use the Cyrillic alphabet, they’re being unfairly targeted as potential Moscow trolls.

But could one of the world’s most prolific global tech companies really make such an embarassing slip up? The answer is: perhaps.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of accurately checking whether there’s been a spike in accounts being blocked other than word of mouth. While there appears to have been a general upswell of public complaints at first glance, this can’t be checked statistically. There’s also no way of checking whether these accounts were blocked because they were flagged as “Kremlin trolls” — or for another reason.

According to The Verge, most accounts started encountering the problems appeared days after Twitter promised to tighten controls against Russian bots, which many politicians in the West fear could have significant impact on elections.

For some users writing in Cyrillic-based languages, it is this timing which seems suspicious.

It is true that Twitter has some rather loose criteria when it comes to identifying “Russia-linked” accounts. Speaking to the US Senate Committee investigating potential Kremlin-interference in the 2016 presidential election, Sean Edgett, the company’s acting general counsel, said that accounts created in Russia, linked to a Russian email or phone number, or those regularly writing in Russian, all fell under the “Russian-linked” category. Perhaps more importantly for nations such as Bulgaria, the company also said that accounts which used Cyrillic alphabets in their username could also be flagged.

But even while speaking to the Senate Committee, Twitter never said that “Russian-linked” automatically meant “Kremlin-linked.” Tweets also had to be flagged as political in nature — mentioning candidates or using campaign-related hashtags, for example — in order for the company to log them.

If Twitter has used a similar model in its bid to clamp down on suspicious “Russia-related” activity, then anyone tweeting on sensitive political events in a Cyrillic-based language could potentially be at risk. But while The Verge reported problems for Bulgarian accounts, there no evidence that accounts in the many other countries using Cyrillic languages have been affected, or that there have been mass suspensions for Russian-speaking countries.

Twitter, meanwhile, has so far declined to give a clear response. A spokesperson for the company told The Verge: “We’re looking into this issue and will take any needed steps to resolve it, while continuing to take actions to enforce our terms of service and combat malicious networks of spam and automation.”