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Twitter blames AI for freezing accounts critical of government

  • July 15, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 6:41 p.m.
  • English Press

When Twitter froze the accounts of an outspoken government critic and a satirical movie that portrays Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s politics with black humor, internet users suspected it was political censorship.


But Twitter Japan blames the incidents on misguided account flagging by artificial intelligence.


One of the accounts in question was that of Isoko Mochizuki, a reporter with The Tokyo Shimbun.


She said she could not log in to her account at around 1 a.m. on July 11, making it impossible for her to tweet or scroll through other users’ messages.

She reported the difficulty to Twitter.


Mochizuki has about 240,000 followers. Some of them noticed it five hours later and began tweeting “Lift the freeze off Isoko Mochizuki’s account” with an accompanying hashtag.


Mochizuki was able to get back into her account at around 10 a.m. that day.


Twitter Japan said her account was shut down because the company’s artificial intelligence erroneously thought either it was hijacked by somebody or that she was engaged in activities that breached its terms of service.


In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Natsuko Nishimura, the head of communications at Twitter Japan, denied there were any political motives behind locking down the account.


“It is impossible to freeze an account for a political reason and suspecting (politics) is behind the freeze is totally wrong,” she said. “Her account might have been frozen not because of her posts, but because of the activities of a third party.”


Twitter Japan said a support team uses AI for round-the-clock surveillance to quickly clamp down on spam tweets and other rule-breaking activities.


Mochizuki became a household name after peppering Suga with tough questions at news conferences when he was the chief Cabinet secretary. She was featured in the 2019 movie “i-Documentary of the Journalist.”


The official Twitter account for the satirical movie “Pancake o dokumi suru” (Tasting a pancake to make sure it isn’t poisonous) was also temporarily frozen in June.


The distributor, Star Sands Inc., contacted Twitter Japan about the account freeze soon after it occurred on the morning of June 24. The freeze was lifted the following day.


Star Sands said it received an email from Twitter Japan on June 26 explaining that its AI might have marked the account as spam.


The movie, done in a variety show format, scrutinizes Suga’s political positions from various angles, such as how he responds to questions in the Diet. It is due out on July 30. Pancakes are among Suga’s favorite foods.


In both cases, Twitter Japan blamed its AI for mistakenly flagging the accounts.


Nishimura said the AI inevitably ends up catching innocent accounts in its dragnet, as the company prioritizes speed in its fight against the circulation of inappropriate content and illicit use of accounts.


“We are making efforts to fully explain to our users why such incident occurred,” she said.


(This article was written by Yasukazu Akada and Seiko Sadakuni.)

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