Sunday, January 31, 2021

Resurrecting my Twitter from a suspension

Porto, days before my Ph.D. defense. 2019.

One fine day in 2020 December, I was roaming the streets randomly. Such randomness brings me happiness on a regular day. But these days are anything but regular. "Quit social media and come to real life." Not many realize social media is real life in the pandemic era. We are actively avoiding social activities due to a pandemic. Social media is the safest bet. When everyone is distanced, the demarcation of online and physical worlds collapses. Nevertheless, I decided to reduce my Twitter usage for 2021 to diversify my free time online. I had informed my Twitter friends too. By early January 2021, I had already reduced my Twitter time to 40% of my 2020 levels. "

When Twitter suspended me, I tried to consider it as the universe trying to help me reduce my Twitter time. There were some challenges, though. First, even if I wanted to reduce/stop using Twitter, I don't want to lose my previous tweets. I made many of those with care and effort. Second, my account's suspension through a mass-report was used as a "statement" by the bullies and the fakes that we were fighting. The fake person (who had apparently reported me with the help of his trolls and friends for "spamming him") had resumed tweeting vigorously on his verified profile. How does Twitter end up giving people with fake qualifications verified status? Doesn't Twitter verify you are who you claim to be before offering you that blue tick? I don't know. Some known bullies were hiding behind sockpuppets to attack me once I was gone - precisely because we were alerting everyone, specifically their victims, about who is behind these sockpuppets. 


Dormant bots and sockpuppets

These bullies use the main profile to portray a decent image while using sockpuppet accounts to bully people. Most (if not all) of these bullies are misogynists - if you look into their sockpuppets, most (if not all) of their victims are women. People assume how long a Twitter account was alive as a measure of trust. Not always true. Dormant bots coming back to life to bully after several years is a common challenge. We were also looking at certain trolls repurposing their old bots as new sockpuppets. Some of these sockpuppets are as old as their main accounts. The only difference - they were dormant until recently. Then suddenly, they come back online to defend their main account while fighting the main account's enemies. The usage patterns reveal more confirmation on who is behind the sockpuppets too.


Social media companies should seriously consider a Wikipedia-style community moderation, combined with their existing moderation teams. Indeed, people can use VPNs and Tor to hide their identity. But it is implausible that most of the bullies that we were dealing with use those. Twitter should consider locking suspicious accounts from the same IP address and device when they unify to attack someone. It is impossible that a bully and their friend/roommate/sibling are using the same device from the same network simultaneously. Even so, that is a coordinated attack, and that warrants some intervention. Free speech, you would say? Then, all it took for a fakeDr and his bully friends, the number of reports to suspend me on spam accusations. 


The aftermath 

Friends recommended me to appeal my suspension with details - which exactly what I did. Some suggested I come back in a second account to handle the bullies who were making up stuff while I was gone. I rejected both - I am not going to use a second profile. If my Twitter account is gone, I will end my Twitter usage with that. I was planning to reduce my Twitter usage anyway. I also don't want to bother replying to those without backbone who use only sockpuppets - and dare not say a word with their main account.

But, once my account is gone, my whole Twitter history was gone. Google still showed my images and posts. But when I click, it showed, "This tweet is from a suspended account." That wasn't pleasant. In my opinion, Twitter should lock the account, remove their harmful tweets, and then give the user a choice to either delete the account as a whole or keep the locked account as a record. At least for the first-time offenders. Also, with Twitter suspension, many of my embedded tweets looked weird in my previous blog posts. It gets more bizarre for Trump. Many news articles with his tweets embedded look worse. Fortunately for them, most of them were using screenshots instead.

In the meantime, my friends offered to look internally through their connections on Twitter to un-suspend my account quicker. I made a blog post on my Twitter life and the story behind my suspension. The response from Twitter and how the events unfolded around Twitter following my suspension helped narrow down the cause of my suspension. A fake Dr had reported me for questioning him under his profile as "spam." Often it requires a lot of effort to suspend a bully online. But with the number, Twitter verification, and power, they could suspend someone who poses a legitimate criticism - rather than fixing their problematic behavior. Any suspension mechanism without community involvement will be inefficient and imperfect, especially when dealing with local languages (Sinhala and Tamil).


The resurrection 

Twitter restored my account in 5 days. Of course, not a single tweet of mine was ever removed by Twitter before. This was my first "offense" of spam. So Twitter isn't going to keep an account suspended forever for spamming a person who faked his qualifications all the way to reach the top leadership - regardless of the numerous reports he and his friends has made. Once I returned to Twitter, I asked my Twitter friends to connect with me through other means (especially, LinkedIn), as I do not want to lose my connection to them if I lose my Twitter again. I warned my friends who were in similar fights to watch out and be careful about handling our fights - either it is a fight against the bullies, sockpuppets, fake doctors, and diploma mills, or for some other good cause. We don't want to lose our accounts. Repeat tagging the politicians, bullies, and fake people to call them out gives them an easy case to report us for spamming them. We should be smarter when our problems are trickier.


There had to be some initial increased Twitter use to tell my friends what happened, what went wrong, how to rectify this, and how to prevent it from happening again. But I am still committed to my decision to reduce my Twitter use this year. I am just trying to see whether I can use more of my free time online for something else while still stuck by the pandemic, with the end in far sight.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Anatomy of a "link spammer"

Link spamming with music
I have encountered several annoying link spammers in the past. Who is a link spammer? A link spammer uses the comment/quote functions in blogs and Twitter to promote their web site (which is usually a garbage site). Most often than not, the link spammers are bots. They are auto-configured to post links and music videos to random web pages, tweets, or blog posts.

Recently I encountered a sockpuppet and the link spammer, and reported them both. The link spammer (who was quoting random tweets with links to his pyramid-scheme website) was taken down within a few hours. The racist sockpuppet still continues to spam random Tweeps with his hateful replies. It shows how social media treats spam. Adding random links to several tweets as a comment/quote is an easier way to get suspended than posting random nonsensical text and images, even with nasty content.

Link spamming with personal web page
Later I encountered another link spammer, whose entire aim was to spam random people with a link to a specific song. The song eventually reached one billion views on YouTube. I don't think the link spammer contributed to the views significantly. But I am sure that link spammer was a bot as it was spamming random people en masse, without engaging to comments.
Today's encounter was with a person who would reply to random tweets with his garbage irrelevant website, hoping unsuspecting users would click his garbage link - check his twitter profile to find it out yourself. Sometimes these links are harmless, aiming to get traffic to their web site. Other times, they are a phishing attempt. Be careful of what you click, especially when it comes out of nowhere from a link spammer. My blog comments are moderated due to the severity of link spamming. They are quite a nuisance.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Google Summer of Code (GSoC) 2021

There are a few specific changes to GSoC this year compared to the past years. Specifically, workload and the student stipend have been made half in 2021. This change is highlighted as a direct outcome of the COVID19 pandemic and the challenges of committing full-time to GSoC during these unpredictable days. As such, we do not know yet whether these changes will remain the same in 2022 and later or will GSoC revert to its full-time commitment (35hrs/week) in the upcoming years. 

In the past years, the potential to commit full-time to GSoC was a major deciding factor. We would actively avoid selecting candidates who already have an on-going internship or a job unless they exhibit the potential still to commit the same amount of time and effort. However, since GSoC is officially part-time this year, I see the ability to commit full-time to GSoC is not a deciding factor. Mentors and student can even schedule their work hours the way they see fit. For instance, work full time for specific days or weeks, just making sure the deadlines are met.

Given below is an introductory presentation to GSoC 2021. Good luck!

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The rise and the fall of a Twitter star

Having some sandwich on NOLA roadside
Everything that starts eventually comes to an end. Well, maybe not everything. But social media - indeed do. I created my Twitter account in 2009 March when a leader in my previous company suggested we use Twitter to share what we are working on. I have had some good times on Twitter since then, as can be seen from my various blog posts on my Twitter life.

1. The Facebook Era (2009 - 2015)

Although I kept posting on Twitter since 2009, it was just my monologue most of the time. I rarely had people interacting with me. It was also partly because I rarely interacted with others as well. Facebook was my primary social medium by then. I was quite active on Facebook, and during my peak, if my memory is right, I had almost 2000 "friends" on Facebook. Most of the people were those I have met - at least briefly. My Facebook profile had all my photos until 2015. I decided to deactivate my Facebook account in 2015 (More details on why I deactivated my Facebook account). Interestingly, five years later, I am now writing a similar post for Twitter. The reasons and circumstances have some interesting overlaps and differences.

2. The Gap (2015 - 2016)

When I deactivated my Facebook, I did not know how long I could "live" without Facebook. For that reason, I did not announce on Facebook before leaving in December 2015. However, I successfully kept it deactivated for more than half a decade now. At some points, I had to log in briefly for some reasons, for example, to get some contact details of some friends I have only on Facebook. But overall, every time, I deactivated my account quickly after the conversations (which lasted, maximum, a day or two). I quickly learned to live without Facebook, and even when I went back briefly for a valid reason, I did not feel the urge to stay longer. I started to miss a way to keep connected to the friends I made along the way. I began to use LinkedIn for that. Of course, LinkedIn is supposed to be more professional, and I don't get to see those friends' photos. But at least I had a way to keep in touch. It was also, in a way, more comfortable to ask people I meet in conferences to add me to my LinkedIn rather than my Facebook. Not that I had trouble in adding friends I made in conferences to my Facebook. I use LinkedIn as an extended CV. As such, I never really posted anything there that shouldn't be in a CV or a professional portfolio. Indeed, I often felt the gap Facebook left. But I was also quite busy with my Ph.D. and my life. I had no time to worry about losing a social medium.

3. The Trump Era (2016 - 2019)

Trump's rise from a businessman to the president of the USA was highly attributed to Twitter. In 2016, many people had started to see Twitter in a more positive light. Even many global politicians began to see any publicity as good publicity. By late 2016, more active Twitter users popped up. Even Sri Lankan leaders and politicians started to get involved on Twitter. In 2017, a Brazilian friend echoed my sentiments on how local politicians were trying to replicate the Trump model. Twitter witnessed a sharp rise in interactions. I noticed many of my Facebook friends started to get active on Twitter, ditching Facebook altogether. K-Pop stans started to get popular on Twitter, sharing fancams. Some of them were trolling the politicians (mostly rightwingers) in their own game (More details on K-Pop fancams on Twitter). Still, it was 2020 that made me get more involved on Twitter.

4. The Era of Darkness (2020 - 2021)

2020 brought us a deadly pandemic, followed by travel restrictions. It also forced many of us to live home alone; families separated for various reasons, including travel restrictions and educated decisions on avoiding risky inter-continental flights. We all started to work from home from March 2020 with no end in sight. Except for some occasional trips, roadside walks, and hikes (sometimes with my colleague who lives in the same street), I was home alone 24/7. I rarely had human interaction for the past year (except via the Internet), which was strange. Lisboa had turned me into an extrovert. I like people; I like humans. But for the past several months, I avoided human contact as much as possible to adhere to the social distancing. As my only active social medium, Twitter often helped me make some friendly chats with friends, amid all these lonely months.

Like we come to Twitter to make friends, some trolls come to Twitter to bully others. They create sockpuppets (More details on sockpuppets on Twitter) to harass people with opposing viewpoints. Recently, with the help of my friends, I spotted a vile middle-aged man who created (at least) three sockpuppets to bully and harass successful women. I posted a Tweet warning these bullies to stop - without mentioning the names, but with sufficient information. I noticed he stopped harassing the women after that tweet. Could it be a coincidence, or perhaps, as a Twitter mutual, he saw my tweet and stopped bothering them, fearing I would doxx him? I would not know. Together with some of my friends, I found and reported several such bullies and sockpuppets.

For instance, there was a bully who was sending violent graphic death threats to women online. We reported and took his account down. Later, I learned from those ladies that those death threats were meant as a joke, and he was their friend. Ok, now we are trivializing death threats. OK. In 2012, Amanda Todd, in a saddening public YouTube video, sought help, "I have nobody. I need someone," after being bullied in real life and online. No one paid attention until she took her own life a month later. Someone could have stepped in and at least pointed her in the right direction. Perhaps, made sure no one bullied her?


I watched a Chinese movie, based on a novel influenced by some bullying scandals, 少年的你 (Better days, 2019) on a flight. Sometimes, someone stepping in at the right time could save a life. Violent public tweets/posts can be triggering to unsuspecting onlookers. Such insensitive jokes distract those who want to step in to stop legitimate harassment. These jokes also waste law enforcement and Twitter moderation team's resources. Therefore, I would argue against making death threats or violent tweets even for a joke.

5. The End

Twitter suspended my account yesterday after apparently receiving several reports of violation. I never have DM'd anyone except friends (Twitter mutuals) - that too, just friendly chats. No illegal, creepy, weird, violent, or adult DMs. So I could quickly rule out DMs as I never sent any DM of bizarre nature. It must be my tweets. I also use only one profile (@pradeeban). No sockpuppets, anon, or fake accounts. As such, no one could accuse me of creating multiple identities. Sockpuppets are a massive problem on Twitter, and I was fighting precisely that.

I have gone after some fake humans on Twitter. One dude who hasn't even completed his high-school exam has faked a Ph.D. and is holding leadership positions in Sri Lanka. Unqualified people in top posts will be hazardous to the nation. We exposed him. Perhaps, he had a rationale to report me for the repeated tag. As a public figure, he is not free from criticism, which is our responsibility to ask for the truth. But, I don't think Twitter can differentiate these. I also have gone after some fake "influencers" (More details on how these influencers ruin Twitter for everyone). However, it is unlikely that these fake people reported me. I posted the tweets against those fakes months ago. They wouldn't have to wait for months to report me for that. That makes me believe that it should be one of the bullies that we targeted recently.

I have appealed to Twitter on this suspension. Usually, they would ask me to take down the offending Tweets. I will know by then which of my tweets were of the violation that prompted my account's suspension. I never had real enemies on Twitter. I might have earned a few by poking my nose into issues that I thought warrant my intervention. Some of those bullies, sockpuppets, and fake people I offended could easily have formed a group to mass-report me, giving me my own medicine. :)

Now, there is also this very real possibility: I kept posting YouTube videos on my timeline, and perhaps some people found that annoying and reported me for those as well. But those are on my profile. Right? But who knows? We will not know until Twitter gets back to me. If Twitter gives me back my account, I will see you all again on Twitter. Otherwise, thanks for all the good times. If I have ever argued with you on Twitter, it was just I was talking whatever that I believed was right at that time. I don't really consider any of the Twitter humans as my enemies. My sincere and unconditional apologies to you if my arguments or tweets in general made you feel bad or hurt you. It was never my intention. I don't want to be the bully myself while I was trying to fight the bullies, fake people, and sockpuppets online.

ළමායි/சிறுவர்களே, be nice to everyone in real life and online. These are difficult days. We are all bound by a deadly pandemic, and often online interactions are our only human interaction. Everything that starts eventually comes to an end, I mentioned in the beginning. I might not get my Twitter account back. But I am just a worker ant in a red ant colony. My absence will not change our fight towards a kind and fair social media in Sri Lanka, free from bullies and sockpuppets. We are in this fight together. ස්තුතියි/நன்றி.
Jan 27th: I have got my Twitter account back tonight after the appeals. (More details on this update).