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Conservative Twitter is freaking out over a reported bot purge

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Twitter has seemingly suspended thousands of suspected bot accounts, and some conservatives are claiming it’s a deliberate political crackdown, or “Twitter Lockout.” This morning, a number of right-leaning users complained about losing dramatic numbers of followers — including Michael Flynn, Jr., “alt-right” figurehead Richard Spencer, journalist Cassandra Fairbanks, and Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson.

Other people posted (unconfirmed) reports that they had been temporarily locked out of their accounts because of “unusual activity” and “automated behavior,” and were asked to provide a phone number for verification.

Contacted for comment, Twitter told The Verge that “Twitter’s tools are apolitical, and we enforce our rules without political bias. As part of our ongoing work in safety, we identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse. We also take action on any accounts we find that violate our terms of service, including asking account owners to confirm a phone number so we can confirm a human is behind it. That’s why some people may be experiencing suspensions or locks. This is part of our ongoing, comprehensive efforts to make Twitter safer and healthier for everyone.”

Russia-linked social media manipulation has been under particular scrutiny recently after the FBI indicted 13 alleged members of the Internet Research Agency last week, and bots allegedly promoted discord after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. The Internet Research Agency’s misinformation campaign allegedly targeted all parts of the political spectrum but focused particularly on promoting Donald Trump. So it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if bot accounts tended to follow conservative figures.

Conservatives, however, have long claimed that they’re specifically targeted by Twitter; even FCC chair Ajit Pai has accused the company of political discrimination. So it’s also not surprising to see this characterized as a liberal Silicon Valley plot, although some of the theories get remarkably specific — like white supremacist David Duke complaining that Twitter is specifically preventing him from reaching 50,000 followers. One person started a White House petition demanding that the move be “stopped immediately” by Trump. On the other hand, some people who complained about losing followers say they’ve gotten them back, presumably as real users verified their phone numbers after being flagged.

Twitter has made pro-Trump bot purges before, it’s created controversy by suspending individual conservative accounts for other reasons, and it’s weathered years of conservative political complaints and threats to leave the service. This is just the latest turn in that cycle.

Update 12:40PM ET: Added comment from Twitter.