As It Happens

'Twitter sided with the Nazis,' says writer after company shuts down his impostor-hunting bot

Yair Rosenberg says Twitter is protecting racist trolls by shutting down a tool designed to expose them.
Yair Rosenberg said he was inspired to co-create @ImposterBuster after he was targeted by anti-Semitic trolls on Twitter. (Submitted by Yair Rosenberg)

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Yair Rosenberg says Twitter is protecting racist trolls by shutting down a tool designed to expose them.

Rosenberg, a New York-based reporter for Tablet Magazine, is the co-creator of @ImposterBuster, a Twitter bot that unmasks people who impersonate minorities on Twitter.

"So you've heard about fake news? These are fake Jews, and also fake Muslims and fake African-Americans — all sorts of minorities on Twitter," Rosenberg said.

"Basically a racist troll goes online, appropriates the image of a minority ... and then inserts themselves into conversations on social media saying offensive, racist and otherwise off-putting things so that the unsuspecting person scrolling through their social media feed sees someone who looks like a minority being incredibly offensive and outlandish."

That's where @ImposterBuster comes in.

The brainchild of Rosenberg and San Francisco developer Neal Chandra, the bot uses a crowdsourced database of known impostor accounts.

When the trolls in the database tweet at other people, the bot chimes in and exposes them for who they really are.

The bot in action. (Wayback Machine )

Rosenberg said he was inspired to target those accounts after being harassed and impersonated while covering the 2016 U.S. election.

"I'm a big believer in finding ways to solve problems on social media that are sort of bottom-up rather than expecting all these companies to figure out how to police all of their content," Rosenberg said.

"I think users should fight back against people who misuse the platforms because most users want platforms to be, you know, healthy and honest."

The @ImposterBuster bot is the brainchild of writer Yair Rosenberg and developer Neal Chandra. (Wayback Machine)

But the trolls can fight back too. 

In April, Twitter suspended the bot after receiving a deluge of harassment reports about the account.

"Just as they duplicitously cast themselves as minorities, they disingenuously recast our response to their ongoing abuse as harassment," Rosengberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

"Twitter sided with the Nazis."

The company quickly reinstated the account amid outcry, but shut it down again in December, citing violations of its terms of service.

"Twitter welcomes the use of our service to counter hate speech and promote positivity, unity, and understanding. We believe this type of counterspeech is a healthy use of Twitter, and a necessary part of a vibrant democracy," a Twitter spokesperson told As It Happens in an e-mailed statement.

"Everyone on Twitter must follow the Twitter Rules, including our rules that prohibit hateful conduct, as well the rules that prohibit spammy behaviour and automated mentions of other people. We are regularly in touch with developers to help ensure their work fully follows the Twitter Rules and our developer policies."

'No one is exposing them'

Rosenberg admitted the bot technically does violate Twitter's rules, but added he wouldn't have a problem letting it go if Twitter also stepped in to address the impostor accounts.

Instead, he said, the bot is gone and the racist trolls are still active.

"All those people that our bot was calling out and labelling and so on, now they're running free and no one is exposing them and no one is alerting the users they're trolling that they're being misled and deceived," he said.

If anything, Rosenberg said Twitter should take page out of his and Chandra's book. 

"It's sort of a poster child for what Twitter can do in a positive way," he said.

"Here are two people, myself and this developer, who live on two different coasts of the United States of America, who've never met, who were connected by Twitter, and then built something to make Twitter better all on our own.

"That should be something that Twitter would appreciate and support. And, hopefully, you know, they'll slowly come around to understanding that those things are their friends and not something they need to police."