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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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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