On July 8, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom had 1.53 million Twitter followers, according to an archive of his Twitter page. A little less than two weeks later, on July 20, he had 1.37 million.
Why would the 2018 gubernatorial frontrunner lose roughly 160,000 followers, more than 10 percent of his following on the social media platform, just as the general election race was gearing up?
Newsom’s Twitter following appears to be another casualty of the so-called “purge” of suspicious accounts the San Francisco-based tech company announced on July 11, as Twitter seeks to ease criticism that its platform is being abused to the detriment of American democracy. Former President Barack Obama, for example, lost more than 2 million followers in the ensuing days, while entertainers like Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher lost more than a million, each.
Among leading California politicians, the Democratic candidate for governor lost by far the most followers. Current Gov. Jerry Brown, appears to have lost roughly 100,000, dropping from 1.22 million on July 11 to 1.1 million five days later. Other prominent elected officials, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Senator Dianne Feinstein saw only a minimal decline in their following, however. Twitter accounts for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senator Kamala Harris had no discernible drop off, at all.
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Newsom’s campaign did not reply to inquiries on the state of his Twitter account. The governor’s office declined to comment.
Newsom’s general election opponent, Republican businessman John Cox, saw his follower numbers continue to climb since June, although he has far, far fewer — less than 15,000 as of last count — than his gubernatorial rival.
A Twitter spokesman emphasized that the recent effort to cull suspicious accounts on the site was not targeted at fake followers or automated accounts, known as “bots,” however. According to a blog post by Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead, the deleted accounts had been previously locked due to “sudden changes in account behavior.” Most of those accounts, she added, “were created by real people but we cannot confirm that the original person who opened the account still has control and access to it.”
While Gadde underscored that Twitter is able recognize and block automated “spam” accounts, social media experts The Bee spoke with said many bots aren’t entirely automated, which makes them harder to recognize and purge. And they suspected a large chunk of the locked accounts that Twitter has erased in recent days were operating as bots at some point, even if they were created by humans.
Clayton Davis, a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering who studies bot behavior on social media, pointed out that many people use scheduling software to post a steady stream of content, which is a form of automation. Other people allow automated programs to co-opt their accounts, entirely, to help spread a message. In addition, hackers have been known to get access to inactive accounts and turn them into bots.
“I suspect strongly that this is the type of behavior Twitter was going after,” said Davis, who is part the team behind Botometer, a program that analyzes bot activity on Twitter.
Newsom and Brown appear to have attracted large numbers of these types of followers, possibly in an attempt to sow mischief.
The role of bots on social media came to prominence in the wake of the 2016 election, as reports emerged of foreign operatives allegedly aligned with Russia using automated accounts to promote President Donald Trump’s campaign and savage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That’s upped the pressure on companies like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to better police their platforms.
Twitter, in particular, has been vulnerable to fake accounts and bots because it did not, until recently, require users to verify their identities. In June, the company announced it would require new accounts to confirm either an email address or phone number when they set up an account.
For political candidates and other Twitter users, these new crackdowns — and their impact on follower numbers — are significant. A user’s clout on the platform is measured by the number of followers they have, one of the few metrics the site publicly discloses. For politicians, Twitter is a particularly useful tool to try and shape the media’s narrative and reach so-called political “influencers” and activists.
Bots can help amplify a message by replying to or retweeting a statement en masse. But they can also distort that message.
For that reason, Newsom’s drop in followers isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Tara McGowan, CEO of Lockwood Strategy, a Democratic digital media firm. “I don’t think anybody wants shallow followers,” McGowan explained.
She suspected that many of the now-deleted Twitter followers that Newsom, Brown and others attracted were not engaged supporters but political critics there to monitor or attack their messages. Others were just completely inactive. “It might look good on the surface” to have a higher follower count, McGowan said. “But if you’re actually trying to drive messaging or influence (people) it doesn’t help your cause at all.”