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August 24, 2022

Twitter restructures safety teams amid accusations about security and spam bots

The social network is reshaping the way it addresses harmful content as it faces criticism of its handling of automated bots.

By Matthew Gooding

Twitter is restructuring its teams that deal with spam bots and harmful content, it has been reported. The reshuffle comes after the company’s former security chief turned whistleblower, saying it had misled regulators about the security of its platform.

Twitter bots
Twitter has been under fire about its security arrangements. (Photo courtesy of Brett Jordan on Unsplash)

The social media business is merging its health experience team, which is tasked with reducing misinformation and harmful content, and the Twitter service team, which is responsible for reviewing complaints from users and weeding out problematic accounts. The new group will be called “Health Products and Services (HPS)”, according to the email to employees seen by Reuters.

Ella Irwin, vice president of product for health and Twitter service, will head up the new team and told staff in the email: “We need teams to focus on specific problems, working together as one team and no longer operating in silos.”

A Twitter spokesperson said the change “reflects our continued commitment to prioritise, and focus our teams in pursuit of our goals”.

Twitter whistleblower raises concerns over bots and security

News of the reshuffle comes after Peiter Zatko, Twitter’s former head of security, turned whistleblower to raise concerns about the company’s security arrangements.

Zatko made his disclosure to Congress and federal agencies last month, CNN and the Washington Post reported, alleging that the company’s leadership had not given regulators or its own board the full picture about a number of security vulnerabilities, which could enable foreign spying or manipulation and hacking to occur.

He added that Twitter does not have the resources to get a handle on the true number of bots on the platform and has not made efforts to do so.

A Twitter spokesperson quoted by CNN disputed the allegations and said Zatko had been fired by the company in January 2022 for “ineffective leadership and poor performance”. The spokesperson added: “What we’ve seen so far is a false narrative about Twitter and our privacy and data security practices that is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and lacks important context.”

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Does Twitter know how many bots are on its platform?

The issue of Twitter bots, or automated accounts, was cited by Elon Musk as a major reason for his decision to pull out of a proposed $44bn take-over of the social network. The two parties are set to face off in court over the aborted deal.

Twitter claims less than 5% of its users are bots, a figure that Musk disputes. While not all of these are harmful, many are associated with spreading disinformation and harmful content.

Speaking to Tech Monitor in June, Shi Zhou, associate professor at the Department of Computer Science at UCL, agreed with Zatko's assessment that Twitter could do more to get a handle on the number of automated accounts, but that it was not motivated to do so because it could reduce the number of active users on its platform.

"I don’t think Twitter is very worried about it," Zhou said. "When they remove one million bots it is a loss of a million users."

He added that he is sceptical about the 5% figure and how it is calculated. "I don’t think they have any real evidence [about the number of bots]," he says. "They get it with a small sample size to find out how many are bots. But they sample active users and most bots won’t be currently active. If they find 5% from such a small sample of active users, that is very scary."

Read more: Twitter bots – why is it so hard to find automated accounts?

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