Why Twitter Bots Still Matter in 2018

Cyber Politics, Security & Privacy

Did Twitter bots help Trump and Brexit win?

A new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research says they did. “Their rough calculations suggest bots added 1.76 percentage point to the pro-‘leave’ vote share as Britain weighed whether to remain in the European Union, and may explain 3.23 percentage points of the actual vote for Trump in the U.S. presidential race,” Bloomberg‘s Jeanna Smialek reported last month.

F-Secure’s resident Twitter researcher isn’t necessarily buying the assertion that Russian influences have decided the outcome of some recent elections.

“In my opinion the Russia blaming is political maneuvering,” F-Secure Labs’ Andy Patel said.

Andy has studied Twitter patterns during 2017 elections in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. He’s also looked into phenomena such as follower purchasing, amplification of content (both through organized groups and via botnets), and mechanisms used to propagate scams. To him, what happened in the US Twittersphere in 2016 decidedly resembles experimentation.

“What these entities supposedly did (regarding the purchase of targeted ads on social media platforms) in 2016 looks a lot like research, as opposed to active influencing of politics. At least in the case of what we’ve learned about their activity in the US,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean these entities won’t play a role in future elections, mostly because eliminating their influence from Twitter is almost impossible at this point. Andy pointed out many of the reasons why shutting down bots is not as easy as it seems late last year.

But the biggest reason can be summed up in two words: free speech.

This underlying principle of free speech makes large social media platforms based in the United States generally permissive with a few exceptions including obscenity and directly promoting violence. Of course, Twitter’s commitment to free speech it is often questioned by activists of all stripes and free speech as a concept is often confused. Fear of providing evidence of bias prevents large-scale action, though in the last few years Twitter has banned an array of notables. These bans have provided Gab, a Twitter-like service, a chance to brand itself as the “free speech” alternative to Twitter, though the service seems to have its own conflicts with its members about the limits of acceptable discourse online.

Twitter is a private company and largely able to remove people from the site as long as it doesn’t do so in violation of the law, much the same way a movie theater is allowed to remove patrons for disruptions on a somewhat arbitrary basis. In the past year, Twitter has “cracked down” on trollsbotsusers accused spreading false information in the wake of a shooting, automated tweets, and abuse.

The company is more aware of the problems on the site and so is the public.

But Andy is still able to regularly find and map out tens of thousands of Twitter accounts operating with specific patterns. Although a human is likely behind these efforts, there certainly isn’t a unique individual behind each account. Taking a look at these accounts, you wouldn’t need to be a cyber warfare expert to conclude that they’re probably bots.

“People are much more aware of the phenomenon than they were in 2016,” Andy said. “But that said, ‘bots’ are still hard to spot, come in many shapes and sizes, and are operated by plenty of different entities.”

To illuminate how bots may seem “Russian” or part of a larger political effort when they aren’t, Andy pointed to analysis he helped Geoff Goldberg perform of an account pretending to be “Greensboro N.C.”

“It has more followers than the official Twitter profile of that town, and shows up in plenty of searches by virtue of name and number of followers. It is run by a Greensboro local who, when contacted by phone, admitted to having created the @greensboro_nc account — and many other North Carolina town-affiliated Twitter accounts – some years ago as part of an SEO-related business venture. Most of his other accounts have been dormant for a number of years.”

With just a bit of effort, anyone — a foreign adversary, political activists, a SEO “expert” — could start up an account that summons authority and relevance beyond most individuals.

“If some ‘researcher’ took a quick look at it, they might instantly suspect the Russians.”

No one country, movement or individual has cornered the market on using Twitter to manipulate public conversations. But that doesn’t mean some people aren’t better at this than others.

“What’s more worrying is that there are plenty of examples of groups, such as the ‘alt-right’, utilizing large numbers of cyborg or bot accounts to amplify their messages.”

Amplified messages help make the news and sway the discourse toward the debate your side wants to have. Now that the power of such activities has been identified and perhaps over identified, we can’t expect it to go away. And if you just blame the Russians, you may miss what’s really going on, but that’s the kind of disinformation and dissension they may be most interested in spreading, anyway.

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