Twitter is finally labeling bot accounts... but not all of them

Wouldn't it be more helpful to distinguish between human and bot before placing value judgments?

3d rendering robot army or group of cyborgs in factory

Twitter is rolling out a new label to recognize “good” bot accounts across the social network. It’s a limited test right now, with only a select few handpicked accounts chosen to receive the first #GoodBots labels. Twitter says the option for others to apply for the label will be “available soon.”

The new label will show up in two places: above the account’s bio on its profile page and between the account name and any of its tweets on the main Twitter feed. On the bot’s profile, the label includes a spot to communicate who automated the account as well.

Most surprising about the new labels is that they weren’t added sooner. Twitter has always had a contentious relationship with its automated denizens, which are all too often mistaken for real humans. As you might expect, mistaking bots for humans contributes to the spread of trending conspiracy conversations on a pretty regular basis.

Officially official — The millions of bot accounts on Twitter have always been official in the sense that they use the official Twitter API to function. Twitter could, at any time, choose to block them out of the site completely, so their continued existence is something of an implicit blessing from the company. Twitter rarely addresses its many bot creators directly, allowing them to thrive as a sort of unofficially official subsystem across the site. The new labels will give these bot accounts the company’s explicit blessing for doing their thing.

In a new FAQ, Twitter says the new labels are “all about transparency.” Moreover, Twitter wants “good” bot accounts — it cites, for example, ones that help find vaccine appointments and disaster early warning systems — to gain legitimacy across the platform.

Why not all of them? — Twitter’s motivations here are somewhat muddled. The company’s emphasis on “good” vs. “bad” bots — rather than first focusing on distinguishing between bots and humans — is perplexing.

Right now, there’s no official requirement for creators to self-identify their bots as such, though Twitter did update its developer policy last year with language that “asks” them to do so. For all intents and purposes, the new labels won’t really help users know for sure that they’re interacting with a human, because only the “good” bots will be given an Automated label.

The value judgment comes across as a little misplaced. And even “good” accounts won’t be forced to label themselves. They’ll have the option to do so, if they so desire. If a bot account hopes to pass as human, it still definitely has the option to do so.