A weird side effect of having a president-elect who tweets incessantly has been the battle for the space under his tweets. Over the past several months, a series of automated accounts have been vying to respond to Donald Trump's tweets within seconds of being posted.
This week, however, Twitter has been cracking down on many of these accounts. Twitter has suspended the most prominent automated responder, @PatrioticPepe, who amassed more than 10,000 followers with the account's Make America Great Again memes, which had at times been retweeted by Trump himself. The account first tweeted that Twitter had cut off its API access. The entire account is suspended now.
It's worth noting that many automated accounts are not "bots," per se. Many of the accounts that regularly won the race to tweet immediately after Trump—New York magazine profiled @keksec__org, @NeilTurner_ and@WhiteGenocideTM earlier this year—also post tweets that are not automated. Instead, these accounts are people who use automated scripts to tweet at Trump, which serve to supplement their "normal" tweets, making it harder to discern who is a "bot" and who has a semi-automated account. Each of those three accounts still tweet at Trump, but no longer race to respond with an automated message.
Over the summer, I traded a series of direct messages with @PatrioticPepe, in which the person behind the account confirmed that he was using scripts to respond to Trump. Trump's automated responders even spawned a podcast series, called #WhoIsNeil, which does deep dives on individual automated accounts.
While @PatrioticPepe was relatively annoying (a sample of the account's tweets can be found on the Internet Archive), the account didn't seem to have any capitalistic motives. And the pseudonymous PatrioticPepe wasn't masquerading as a "real" person. It was replaced as the fastest automated tweeter by at least two accounts—@RichiJMiller and @ErikaPiris—who were hawking Make America Great Again mugs and Donald Trump t-shirts. Those accounts responded to Trump's tweets this week within seconds, and the responses to those tweets were from satisfied "customers" who also appeared to be bots.
Twitter has now suspended both of those accounts, too. In the course of researching this story, my browser crashed before I had taken screenshots of those accounts' tweets. By the time I got around to trying to pull them back up, Twitter had already suspended the accounts, so you'll have to take my word for it—they were spamming Trump's tweets with ads.
While Twitter does not ban all bots (there are many useful or entertaining automated accounts), it does have a policy against "reply bots." When I asked for information about PatrioticPepe, RichiJMiller, and ErikaPiris, Twitter told me it does not comment on specific accounts, but it directed me to the site's automation rules.
"The reply and mention functions are intended to make communication between users easier, and automating these processes in order to reach many users is considered an abuse of the feature," Twitter's policy states. "If your application creates or facilitates automated reply messages or mentions to many users, the recipients must request or otherwise indicate an intent to be contacted in advance."
In the days since Twitter's crackdown on Trump's automated responders, the spaces beneath his tweets are still a hotbed of memes, arguments, and general nonsense, but they're coming from a wide variety of people and the tweets don't appear to be automated. Isn't that what a democracy is about? We'll see how long it lasts.