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Given the outsized role Twitter played in the last Presidential election; both the real one (Trump’s use of it to reach the American people immediately and without a filter was unprecedented) and the imagined (no, Russian bots didn’t manipulate the election), it’s unsurprising a New York Times story about fake followers has sent some shockwaves.
In short: Some prominent folks, from celebrities to journalists to athletes have purchased fake followers from a company that traffics in such things. You want to seem more well-known, well-respected? Having 100,000 more Twitter followers; more people who seem to follow your every whim, goes a long way in adding to that cache. One of the individuals identified by the Times as having bought followers was Richard Roeper, a film critic from Chicago. Yesterday afternoon, this news broke:
BREAKING NEWS: Film critic Richard Roeper suspended indefinitely by Chicago-Sun Times for buying fake Twitter followers.
— Dave Vescio (@DaveVescio) January 30, 2018
Why does the Chicago Sun-Times employ Roeper? Is it because he has a lot of Twitter followers or because he’s a good film critic? The Sun-Times decision is truly inexplicable if it’s the latter. While buying Twitter followers appears desperate and a little pathetic, it’s not on par with plagiarism or other major ethical lapses which require suspensions or firings from media entities.
How big of a deal is it that there are thousands of bots out there, anyway? While it’s important for Twitter to get a handle on the masses of them out there; this suggestion by Mark Cuban would take one of the biggest benefits of Twitter off the platform: the ability to be anonymous.
There are countless reasons why someone may want to use the service under an assumed name: from fear of state violence in repressive countries to clandestine conservatives tweeting their thoughts while working in liberal industries; everyone should have the right for their voices to be heard. That doesn’t mean we all have to listen to those thoughts; that’s the beauty of the mute and block buttons on the service.
Requiring individuals to use their real names wouldn’t just be a heavy lift for the service to verify; it would also send scores of anonymous accounts off. Even if those names were kept on the back end of the Twitter servers, given the James O’Keefe investigation into the ethics of those with access, it’s not a good idea. If the Office of Personnel Management — the HR wing of the U.S. government — can be hacked, so too can Twitter. And having real names attached to messages could literally endanger lives and livelihoods around the world.