There is no #AntiAtheistCampaign on Twitter. It’s just a crackdown on spam.

I happened to stumble across a few Tweets yesterday that contained the hashtag #AntiAtheistCampaign. Hashtags are often used to organize on Twitter. This appeared to be some people organizing against some sort of oppression against certain Twitter accounts. Was it widespread? Was it orchestrated by the religious?  I delved in further.

What I found was a disappointing lack of skepticism, a great deal of conspiracy mongering and very little evidence.

Now, clearly there were in fact some Twitter accounts that had been disabled, the evidence of that is undeniable. But with a little bit of awareness of what these folks were doing with their accounts, along with quick scan of the Twitter blog and even the tech news sites, one can piece together what is happening.

Bottom line: there is no evidence at all that Christians are ganging up on atheists on Twitter in an organized (and successful) campaign to get their accounts disabled. There is a much simpler explanation. Read on.

The Basics

search of the AntiAtheistCampaign hashtag got me the gist of what was being alleged. Here are a few typical messages:

I dug into this further, following replies and looking at people’s profiles, and kept finding very vague statements, rumor and speculation.

A few blog posts appeared. This post said that “it appears an effort by other Twitter users to mark these accounts as ‘spam’ caused an automatic suspension of these users.”  Other posts also express the perception that this was a deliberate campaign. And this blog post stated that “a number of prominent atheists had their accounts suspended” but admitted that “details are sketchy.”

Sketchy or not, the hashtag marched on, spawning a Facebook group and a number of posts at a WordPress blog where folks were commiserating about the whole thing.

Sketchy Details

Now, I follow several atheist thought leaders on Twitter such as @pennjillette (of Penn & Teller), @hemantmehta (The Friendly Atheist) and @BrotherRichard (of Atheist Nexus) who I know personally as he lives in my city. I thought it odd they hadn’t mentioned this.

Not only had they made no mention of this, but a moment’s investigation showed that not one of their accounts has been suspended.  Neither are the accounts of PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins nor just about any other truly “prominent atheists” I checked. In fact, I see many prominent atheists tweeting away from the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne this week.

Another thing that stood out from these reports were mentions of “spam”.  Wait a second, hadn’t I heard something in the news about spam on Twitter? Yes, in fact there had been a big blog post by Twitter itself just last week entitled Shutting down spammers:

This morning, we filed suit in federal court in San Francisco against five of the most aggressive tool providers and spammers. With this suit, we’re going straight to the source. By shutting down tool providers, we will prevent other spammers from having these services at their disposal. Further, we hope the suit acts as a deterrent to other spammers, demonstrating the strength of our commitment to keep them off Twitter.

While this is an important step, our efforts to combat spam don’t stop here. Our engineering team continues to implement robust technical solutions that help us proactively reduce spam. For example, earlier this week, our engineers launched new anti-spam measures within Twitter to more aggressively suspend a new type of @ mention spam. Additionally, we now use our link shortener (t.co) to analyze whether a tweeted link leads to malware or malicious content. This helps us prevent users from visiting malicious links and helps us shut down hundreds of thousands of abusive accounts. You can help out, too, by reporting and blocking spammers you encounter on Twitter.

Even if you don’t read Twitter’s blog, news of this (including the $700,000 spent on the lawsuit so far) was covered in the major news media including CNN and Wired.

Note the passages I’ve marked with emphasis in the above. Here’s Twitter HQ stating, just a few days before this started, that they are implementing technical measures that will be more aggressive with spam, and indicating that the reporting and blocking feature on Twitter will help with that.

That’s the key to understanding what is going on.

One Man’s Activism is Another Man’s Spam

Twitter’s own definition of spam tactics includes “abusing the @reply or @mention function to post unwanted messages to users”. Does this sound familiar?

You may recall that last year a true anti-atheist campaigner was abusing the @mention functionality of Twitter repeatedly to annoy hundreds of other users over a period of 6 months. This led me to post a detailed blog post on filtering your Twitter feed last March. In August a number of Twitter users working together managed to convince the Montreal police to arrest this person, and I wrote a detailed history of the case that is still the most popular post on this blog.

With that in mind, let’s go back to one of those blog posts I quoted from earlier, and look at the very top of the article:

Some of my fellow bigot baiters on Twitter have been suspended for “spam” yesterday.

Wait a sec, what’s a bigot baiter?

Well, it turns out that a common form of atheist activity on Twitter is to find people who are making dubious religious statements or expressing blatant anti-atheist bigotry, and challenge them. This is done by using @ mentions to get the person’s attention, and presumably to engage them in conversation.

Let’s look at a few typical tweets. These are all from accounts that were listed as victims of the campaign, and the links go to the cached copy of the tweet at Favstar.fm. I apologize for some of the harsh language:

That’s just  sampling, there are more.

I really doubt that the targets of these @mentions want to receive them. Nobody wants to be called stupid or a “shit stain”.  Thus, by Twitter’s own definition, these messages are spam. They always have been. Bigot baiters are spamming Twitter.

They are flinging @ mentions at people they don’t follow and who certainly don’t follow them, and in many cases they are using foul and abusive language in them.  One of the suspended users even admits in a blog post that he wasn’t following anyone at all with his Twitter account. I would always be suspicious of a Twitter user that is following no-one, it’s one of the spammer red flags I pointed out in the how-to video in my filtering post.

Is it any wonder that some of the targets of these “bigot bait” messages are clicking the Block and Report for Spam button?  I would.

Combine a few clicks of that button with the aforementioned announcement from Twitter that they were clamping down on spam, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out.  Twitter made the algorithm a bit tighter this week, and it backfired on these folks.

It perfectly explains why these accounts are getting blocked and other folks (like Penn Jillette and Hemant Mehta) are not. And it doesn’t require some massive conspiracy or an anti-atheist Twitter executive.

Is Bigot Baiting Useful?

This blog is about technology, not strategy and tactics. So I’m not going to say anything about positivity vs. negativity or the value of debating believers.

However, because of the way that Twitter works, I really doubt that “bigot baiting” could have any useful effect. When you send an @ mention to a person, it is only shown to that person and possibly your own followers. The followers of the person being baited have no idea this is going on.  So it is certainly only a very limited & inefficient form of outreach.

The only significant readership for these tweets is among the atheists and their own followers.  They already agree that these people are bigots, so what is the point of that?  I see this whole thing as a giant waste of time that has now backfired.

Conclusion

There is no mass conspiracy.  A number of atheist activists are going out of their way to harass and annoy religious believers on Twitter, in violation of the long-stated rules.  They are using a modus operandi not entirely unlike that of “David Mabus” last year, a miscreant that some of these same people decried.  It is no wonder that recently beefed up automated algorithms targeting spammers are also targeting their activity.

There is a simple solution.  Stop sending these unsolicited confrontational messages to believers. “Bigot baiting” is a waste of time that could be spent in more effective forms of activism.  And stop leaping to conspiracy theory conclusions about suppression campaigns without doing your homework.

Although the hashtag drags on, a few voices of reason chimed in, including:

This comment sparked me to search around beyond the atheist blogs. If you do that, lo and behold you find this BuzzFeed article:  Twitter’s Spam Crackdown Is Killing Some Of Its Funniest Accounts.  It basically makes the same points I’m making here about Twitter’s spam efforts, but in regards to comedy and parody accounts, not atheism.

There is no #AntiAtheistCampaign. Move along. Nothing to see here.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

15 Responses to There is no #AntiAtheistCampaign on Twitter. It’s just a crackdown on spam.

  1. Pingback: Mass atheist suspension on Twitter – Update | What Would JT Do?

  2. Bravo. I’ve long said this about bigot baiting–total waste of time and energy.

  3. tcburks says:

    Excellent work, Tim!

  4. ironic the bigot-baiters are banned for being bigots..

  5. Pingback: Why I Have a Problem with Religion « Esoterica

  6. what’s a hashtag?

  7. Pingback: The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Skeptic News: Atheists Accuse Twitter of Censorship… Again

  8. The bigot baiters have gotten so bad I no longer reply to their tweets. I only post tweets, because u never know when ur being baited. I have also started blocking those who show up to tweet but don’t follow. So yes, bigot baiters are hurting themselves.

  9. So tweets are only allowed if you agree with someone? Seeing hate and challenging it is now deemed to be spam? I think it’s time Twitter started suspending the people who abuse the spam function, instead of just blocking people they don’t want to hear from. If someone has the right (and is within the rules) to post hateful messages, surely I have the right to question it without being deemed a spammer. What next? Someone gets suspended for spamming, because they don’t like their friend’s new hairstyle. This is pathetic.

    • Tim Farley says:

      I agree with you Stephen that there is a great deal of hateful stuff out there on Twitter. But I don’t follow the thread of logic that this automatically gives you a right to force those people to listen to your criticism.

      Consider a real-world analogy. On a street-corner, simply talking to people who walk up to you and handing them a pamphlet is the equivalent to a normal Twitter post. Those people expressed interest by walking up to you (i.e. following you on Twitter).

      In the same situation, an unsolicited @ mention is like you jumping in front of people as they walk down the street and forcing them to listen to you. If you did this enough, would you be at all surprised if a police officer asked you to tone it down? So it is with Twitter.

  10. Pingback: Content Roundup for April 2012: Flowering « Skeptical Software Tools

  11. There was certainly no organisation.

    And certainly no hitlist.

    http://www.twitlonger.com/show/hf1aeb

    • Tim Farley says:

      One person makes an organization? Show me where she posted this list and told her followers to block everyone.

      The premise of this post still stands. Searching on @blondygirl1’s replies, I see tons of you folks insulting her and claiming you are blocking her too.

      The bottom line is: if you constantly pick fights, there is going to be collateral damage.

  12. Pingback: #TAM2012 Plenary: You Are the Future of Skepticism on the Internet « Skeptical Software Tools

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