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Twitter is treating Bulgarians tweeting in Cyrillic like Russian bots

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People are having their accounts suspended and tweets hidden for the crime of using a different alphabet

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A week ago, Twitter announced it would become more aggressive in pursuing trolls on its service, a move which seems to have had some unforeseen consequences, judging by the present upheaval in the Bulgarian Twitter community. An increasingly large and unhappy number of people have had their Twitter accounts suspended and messages filtered out of conversations, apparently for the offense of merely tweeting in Cyrillic.

Though the trigger for an account to be suspended hasn’t been specifically established, the prevailing hypothesis — based on users’ experience — appears to be that mentioning @YouTube or any other major account in Cyrillic will get one in trouble. Perversely, even if the initial tweeter isn’t affected, the chances of being suspended for anyone replying to such a tweet in Cyrillic are even higher. This problem has afflicted people with accounts dating all the way back to 2009, some of which have multiple thousands of followers. While I’ve been able to verify the experience primarily of Bulgarian users, this blight on Cyrillic Twitter use definitely appears to extend beyond just that community.

Why is this happening? The most likely explanation is that Twitter has ramped up its algorithms for weeding out Russian bots and trolls, and since Russians use Cyrillic, the very use of the alphabet is being treated as a red flag. Except, you know, Bulgarians invented the Cyrillic script. It’s used in a bunch of Slavic countries outside Russia, and even within Russia, not everyone is actually a troll.

Innocent users are able to recover their accounts reasonably quickly after a suspension, but then Twitter still treats them like digital outcasts, showing “tweet unavailable” messages when they respond to a conversation thread and also muting them from sending notifications to others. If you want to know what the term “shadow banning” refers to, well, it’s basically this sort of treatment. It’s especially troublesome because when someone affected by it reaches out to Twitter’s support and help services, they’re told that their account isn’t banned and everything is fine. Except their friends can’t receive any notifications from them or see their contributions to group conversations.

When reached for comment, Twitter took two days to respond with the following:

“We’re looking into this issue and will take any needed steps to resolve it, while continuing to take actions to enforce our terms of service and combat malicious networks of spam and automation.”

Ironically, even as it has grown into a functional customer service portal for many third-party companies to collect customer feedback, Twitter itself remains a profoundly unresponsive company and service provider. People without checkmarks already tend to feel unheard and neglected by Twitter, and this present episode only serves to bolster that impression.