Last month, Emi, a 16-year-old who lives near Austin, Texas, couldn’t log into Twitter. Each attempt she made — on her phone, on her computer and even on her dad’s iPad — resulted in the same message: Her account had been temporarily suspended, pending review from Twitter as to whether or not she’d broken its Terms of Service.
It didn’t make sense because Emi (a pseudonym) was sure she hadn’t bullied anyone, posted hate speech or incited violence. She uses her Twitter account mainly to support progressive causes, such as rights for sex workers, transgender people and American Muslim refugees facing deportation, and most prolifically, to promote her favorite boyband, BTS.
The seven-piece South Korean pop group are currently the world’s biggest boy band, selling out stadium tours in a matter of minutes and producing chart-topping collaborations with Steve Aoki, Ed Sheeran and the Chainsmokers. BTS has also amassed a legion of fans, known online as ARMY, or “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth.” ARMY is a perfect example of “stan culture,” online communities of hyper-devoted fans whose support involves posting an endless stream of content to their social feeds and reposting material from other “stan accounts.” As a result, “Stan Twitter” can get topics trending worldwide in a matter of minutes.
This, though, is where Emi and other fans have found themselves at odds with Twitter. “I’m very sure the reason I was suspended was because Twitter thought I was a bot,” Emi tells me. (Officially she hasn’t received confirmation one way or another.) “I was posting [BTS] content maybe 20 or 30 times a day — mostly links to Twitter polls, ARMY pages and other BTS fan accounts. Twitter’s algorithms picked up the pace of my activity, how similar my tweets were and how many accounts were retweeting my BTS content, and decided that it was similar to a bot.”
In hindsight, she says, getting suspended makes sense, as bots do pose an issue for genuine fans like herself. “Bots have always been a part of online fandoms,” she says. “As the fandom grows, as the group becomes bigger, you end up seeing more bots being set up easily, with the purpose of rigging online polls for voting, or even directing people to fake sites that sell tickets to shows. So most fans don’t want to see bots in our fandoms.”
She adds that the presence of thousands of bot accounts in online BTS communities also impacts the way fans treat each other. “It’s common to see people accuse others they don’t like as being bots and fake accounts. It’s easy for Twitter to look at that activity and say, ‘Yes, this is a similar pattern to other bots,’ and suspend the account. They don’t realize that this decision is [because of] drama inside fandoms.”
Of course, all of this unwittingly plays into a much larger political context. That is, last year, Twitter’s dev team announced that it was building “machine learning tools that identify and take action on networks of spammy or automated accounts automatically” — the type of accounts/bots that played a critical role in the 2016 presidential election. Following the announcement, Twitter claimed to have shut down 70 million fake accounts, and while some of these were designed to spread political propaganda, other harmless bots, including ones that promoted Netflix shows or provided daily automated mental health tips, fell victim to the new rules, too.
Lucy Jayne Ford, a U.K.-based journalist and self-described “boy band stan,” had her Harry Styles fan account suspended earlier this month, after a video she made two years ago was flagged for copyright infringement. Despite Ford telling Twitter that she was allowed to make the video under Fair Use, she tells me rebuttals to suspensions can often take more than a week before they’re even considered by Twitter. “You end up spending time waiting for the person who made the claim about your account to back their claims, or to drop it. Until then, you’re just waiting,” she says. “The most frustrating thing about the suspension process is that you cannot get in touch with a human through any of the usual channels. So a completely valid claim, or unfair suspension, is left for an algorithm to sort and so many people just don’t get an adequate response.”
Though Ford was able to get her fan account @harry_as_bts back within a few days, she thinks the quick resolution came as a result of being a journalist with quick access to Twitter’s press office. Obviously for most fans who are Emi’s age, this is less likely, and suspensions typically mean they have to make new Twitter accounts. “It seems like you really have to pull strings and essentially hound anyone you can at Twitter to get your claim escalated,” Ford says.
“I get emails and messages from people all the time asking if I can help them get their stan account unsuspended because they’ve been accused of impersonation or because they’ve been detected as an automated account,” says Hannah Rose Ewens, the author of the upcoming Fangirls: The Untold Story of Modern Music Culture. She adds that it’s likely more suspensions will occur as fandoms become even more online. “To be a fan means you have to be online a lot,” she explains. “In some ways, it means that becoming a fan is easier because you don’t need to camp outside of a star’s house, get a tattoo or any of the things we associate with fans of the 1990s. These days, you only need to change your display photo, put down the date when a star favorited your tweet or make sure that you’re online when the artist you stan is doing something.”
“The people I spoke to [for the book] didn’t see themselves posting a lot as spamming,” she continues. “They just use Twitter to express the support that they feel; they don’t see it as any obligation or duty. They aren’t being forced to post a lot about BTS or any other band, they’re doing it because they see the platform as the place where they can show their fandom to other fans, where they can feel like they’re part of a big global community in a way that was impossible in previous generations.”
Emi has appealed to Twitter to get her account back, but in the meantime, she’s using alt accounts to continue posting BTS content — most recently, a GIF set of the band’s lead singer, Jungkook, in a Korean TV interview. “He’s so sweet, and you can tell he’s so shy!” Emi explains when I ask her why she finds the GIFs so appealing. If her account isn’t reinstated, she’ll continue to stan from her alts, and “work hard to get them retweeted by the main ARMY accounts.”
“I just love BTS so much,” Emi adds, telling me she’d give up more of her free time to build up her alt accounts. “They’ve done so much to make me happy. I just want to do my best to support them.”