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. . .

Screenshots of Toffee/Salonee Gadgil
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What I learned from Toffee – the elitist dating app

I tried out the new dating app for posh people.

A while ago, I was on a first date, via Tinder. Let’s call the fella Joe. He knew I’d grown up in India and had only been living in London a few months. I’m sure before we met he’d made a few assumptions about what that might mean.

Joe and I got on – easy chat, arm touching, the lot. A few drinks in, Joe relaxed and revealed I wasn’t as he’d expected; my English far too good and my pop culture references too familiar for someone who’d grown up so far away.

I did a big ol’ eye roll in my head, while politely explaining that English is my first language and I grew up watching Crystal Maze just like he did.

“But the way you talk,” he said. “I can hardly hear your accent. If anything, you sound posh. Posh, with a hint of curry!”

I stared at him in silence, confused about whether to be amused or offended. Of all the things I wanted to say, this slipped out: “But brown people can’t be posh!”

“Sure you can,” he explained. “You use words like ‘thrice’ and ‘hence forth’, those are things only posh people do.”

I sort of understood his confusion. The outcome of a colonial education was being interpreted as a marker of upper-class status. “Oh, dear Joe,” I thought to myself. “I speak the way posh white folk taught my people to speak. This is imitation Burberry, not the real stuff.”

I never saw Joe again. But he left me curious about the concept of poshness. There are the usual tropes: privately educated, preppy dressing, polo playing types called things like Arabella or Bertram.

But the word posh gets thrown around lot. For someone who hasn’t grown up in England, it’s a bit difficult to understand.


To sign up to Toffee you have to link up your Facebook profile. The author goes by "Bombom" on Facebook. Photo: Salonee Gadgil

The recently launched dating app called Toffee is exclusively for posh people, according to its founder Lydia Davis. Predictably, reactions to the app have been those of ridicule and outrage, with woke Twitter warriors saying it’s another way of reinforcing archaic social stratification most of us want to move away from.

In reaction, some posh people sulked about being the subject of ridicule; they didn’t choose to be called Bertram.

Part of me sympathises.

Curious, I downloaded Toffee. But for Toffee, the fact that I use the word “thrice” isn’t quite posh enough. To be able to use the app you have to have gone to a private school, either in the UK or US.

There are schools in India that may be considered posh, like the Doon School. It’s where the Indian one per cent goes – your Nehrus and Gandhis. There’s a large population of Doon School alumni in England, but I couldn’t find reference to it on the app.

Toffee isn’t for all upper-class people, then; it seems it’s an app for upper-class white English people. This reaffirms what I said to Joe: “Brown people can’t be posh.”


A referral incentive includes a ticket and drink at a polo event. Photo: Salonee Gadgil

Having been single for two years, and done a deep dive into the world of dating apps, I’ve discovered as many types of men in this country as there are varieties of cheese. Sure, the Europeans do cheese better – and perhaps they do men better too – but we’re on the subject of variety not quality.

Personally, I believe one of the joys of using dating apps is the sheer variety of people they introduce you to. You have the chance, if you have an open mind, to extend the limits of your social circle. I should know, I’ve dated an underwater mechanic, the owner of a tech company, a string theorist, a poet, a cop and a trapeze artist. And my life has been richer for it.

I despair at the idea that people are choosing to find love based on how much money their potential partner’s parents spent on their education. But equally, I like the idea that Arabella and Bertram can have their own fenced-off manicured field to play equestrian games in. I imagine they discuss that enlightening gap year they had in India, where they took yoga lessons – the instructions were in impeccable English, would you believe it?!

Me personally, I’d rather run free among those who believe they could find love anywhere, even the circus.

Salonee Gadgil is on the editorial team at Creative Review magazine. She co-hosts a talk series called The Swipe Hype: a modern-day salon held once every quarter in London to discuss the dilemmas of dating in the digital age.

This article was amended on 16 April 2018 to clarify details about the Toffee app.