The Bots

The bots are already an important part of our political discussion.

A CBC News analysis of deleted troll accounts on Twitter sheds some light on the prevalence of fake accounts in public discussions. Fake accounts on Twitter and elsewhere pretend to be humans of every region and city, but are actually mass-produced and centrally controlled from secret operations in places like Russia and Iran.

Security researchers do not agree about whether these automated fake accounts are correctly characterized as bots. They are not always as autonomous as you would expect a “bot” to be, but the distinction may not matter. The Twitter data shows actions consistent with bots making some decisions on their own. The automated troll accounts have a way of seeking out arguments. Having identified a divisive issue, they then retweet the more controversial and visible statements and occasionally add their own commentary in replies to tweets.

The CBC analysis focused on tweets around Canadian political issues. These were a small fraction of the total tweets from the millions of deleted accounts, but enough to show that it is not just the US and EU that are being targeted. It is important to note that there are millions of automated troll accounts remaining on Twitter and elsewhere, fake accounts that have not been identified or deleted.

Collectively, the foreign Twitterbots seem intended to create the appearance of the kind of heated dissension that could lead to a weakened political state or possibly a civil war.

Assuming this intent, it is hard to say how successful they are, but with known Twitterbots providing as many as one third of all tweets on specific topics and days, they must be having some impact.

Researchers are focusing mainly on Twitter because of the availability of data, but the greatest concentration of fake messages is on Facebook, and bots also add messages to forums, articles, and posts.

Internet users are slowly starting to adapt, developing a habit of skepticism about whether an account espousing a point a view online is a “real person.” We will all be taken in sometimes, but it helps to know that much of the commentary online comes from bots.

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