Just how full of fakes is Twitter? Photo: Getty
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Why fake Twitter accounts are a political problem

The rise in the use of Twitter bots and automated accounts, particularly by politicians and campaigns, is skewing what we see as trends.

In recent years, the phrase “trending on Twitter” has become shorthand for any issue that’s capturing public interest on a massive scale. Journalists and politicians cite popular hashtags as evidence of grassroots support.

Increasingly, though, this chatter isn’t coming from real people at all. Along with the rise in Twitter use has come a boom in so-called “Twitter bots” – automated accounts whose tweets are generated entirely by computer.

Many users, for example, have been surprised to encounter beautiful women lurking in chat rooms who seem unaccountably keen to discuss porn and recommend their favourite sites. Such bots exist entirely to entice other users to click on promotional links, generating revenue for their controllers.

Some bots are harmless, or even funny: @StealthMountain, for example, automates the pedant in all of us by replying: “I think you mean ‘sneak peek’” to tweets that include the phrase ‘sneak peak’.

It’s not clear just how many of Twitter’s 255m active users are fake – but it’s a lot. According to the company itself, the figure is about five per cent, kept down by a team of 30 people who spend their days weeding out the bots. However, two Italian researchers last year calculated that the true figure was 10 per cent, and other estimates have placed the figure even higher.

Now, researchers at Indiana University have created a new tool, BotOrNot, designed to identify Twitter bots from their patterns of activity.

“Part of the motivation of our research is that we don’t really know how bad the problem is in quantitative terms,” says Professor Fil Menczer, director of the university’s Centre for Complex Networks and Systems Research.

“Are there thousands of social bots? Millions? We know there are lots of bots out there, and many are totally benign. But we also found examples of nasty bots used to mislead, exploit and manipulate discourse with rumors, spam, malware, misinformation, political astroturf and slander.”

BotOrNot analyses over 1,000 features of an account – from its friend network to the content of messages and the times of day they’re sent – to deduce the likelihood that an account is fake, with 95 percent accuracy, says the team.

Meanwhile, a tool developed by social media analytics firm Socialbakers uses similar criteria to discover what percentage of a user’s followers are fake. These include the proportion of followers to followed accounts and the number of retweets and links.

Tools such as these are now starting to quantify a trend noticed by researchers over the last two or three years: the use of bots for political purposes. Having thousands of followers retweeting their every word makes politicians look popular, and can turn a pet cause into a top trend worldwide. The practice is known as astroturfing – the creation of fake grass-roots support.

Three years ago, for example, it was alleged that over 90 per cent of Newt Gingrich’s followers showed all the hallmarks of being fake; more recently, during the 2012 Mexican elections, researchers found that the Institutional Revolutionary Party was using tens of thousands of bots to push its messages onto Twitter’s list of top trends.

This month’s elections in India have attracted their fair share of bot activity, too. During India’s last visit to the polls, only one politician had a Twitter account, boasting just 6,000 followers. This time round, more than 56m election-related tweets were sent between 1 January and polling day on 12 May. During the same period, prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi boosted his follower count by 28 per cent, hitting nearly four million.

However, according to SocialBakers, all is not what it seems: nearly half Modi’s followers look suspicious. Modi has form here: late last year, when Time started monitoring Twitter for its Person of the Year award, local media soon spotted a pattern. Thousands of Modi’s followers were tweeting “I think Narendra Modi should be #TIMEPOY” at regular intervals, 24 hours a day – while a rival army of bots was tweeting the opposite.

And don't think it can’t happen here. Bots are easily and cheaply bought, with the going rate around a thousand followers for a dollar; more if you want them to like or share your posts. In 2012, Respect candidate for Croyden North Lee Jasper admitted that his by-election campaigners had been using Twitter bots to boost his apparent popularity in the same way: “It’s all part of modern campaigning,” he said.

Meanwhile, applying the SocialBakers tool to leading UK political accounts, it appears that most have a preponderance of genuine followers. One notable exception is @Number10gov, the prime minister's official account: as many as half the followers of this account appear to be bots, with names such as “@vsgaykjppvw”, “@zekumovuvuc” and “@zong4npp”.

Still, it's possible that @Number10gov doesn't mind this too much: the BotOrNot tool calculates there’s a 72 per cent chance that it's a bot itself. Maybe we should just leave them to talk amongst themselves. . .

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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.