How fake accounts drive the world of Twitter

Imaging: Ajay Mohanty
On October 15, at 1.56 pm, the official Twitter account of Rahul Gandhi reacted to a tweet by US President Donald Trump praising American-Pakistani relations with this tweet: “Modiji quick, looks like President Trump needs another hug.” The tweet quickly zoomed to 30,000-plus retweets.

On October 21, news agency ANI carried a report claiming that Gandhi was using fake twitter accounts — so-called twitter bots from Kazakhstan, Russia and other nations — to retweet his tweets and thereby amplify the apparent popularity of his account.

The story showed screenshots of several automated Twitter accounts that retweeted that Trump tweet. This story was seized upon gleefully by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its social media cell spread the story far and wide using hashtags like #RahulWaveinKazakh. BJP minister Smriti Irani made snide remarks to the effect that Gandhi intended to win elections in Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Congress social media team responded quickly by pointing out several oddities about the Twitter bots that were cited in the story. These accounts had been created several days after Gandhi had made that Trump-related tweet. These accounts specifically stated location data (which can be turned on and off at will) allowing them to be identified as Kazakh and Russian accounts.  

The BJP IT cell had also started publicising the ANI story a couple of hours before it was actually released — a sign that it was clearly in the know of the whole affair. Divya Spandana, who manages social media and digital communication for the Congress, said the story was “factually wrong” and many experts said that this looked like a clumsily faked sting operation where the bots had been created by right-wing supporters to try and embarrass Gandhi.

This is the latest instalment in the ongoing battle to win visibility on social media. The BJP has the largest and most organised social media apparatus and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has over 38 million followers compared to Rahul Gandhi’s relatively measly 3.9 million. But the Congress is pushing hard to increase its social media visibility and the Aam Aadmi Party is also pretty good at managing the Twittersphere.

 
The Congress’ social media wing categorically says that it would not use bots to try and generate Twitter volume. But despite the Congress’ assurances, fake Twitter accounts will almost certainly be deployed by all sides in this battle for social media visibility. In fact, fake accounts controlled and deployed by neutral third parties could end up operating freelance on both sides!

Source: Twitteraudit.com
Any 21st-century political campaign will involve a lot of jockeying for social media territory. The higher the profile of the campaign, the more likely it is to draw “freelancers”. Both the Twitter accounts of Modi and Gandhi have a huge number of fake followers and many of those are freelance.

Every high-profile account attracts bots. Bot controllers seek out high-profile, high-volume accounts that they can follow and retweet in the hope of gaining more followers themselves. For example, a European escort service used to follow Modi and faithfully retweeted him for a while, in-between shilling for clients!

It may seem absurd that an overseas escort service would attempt to gain traction from the Swachh Bharat Mission but that is the absurd way in which social media sometimes works. Following and retweeting a high-profile account is a low-cost way to gain some visibility. Perhaps only one out of every million real followers will notice the fake account, but it’s a free ride. If a hacker controls 10,000 bots (and that’s not impossible), he can multiply his chances of being noticed. It’s even cheaper than the old game of sending out spam emails. That involved buying e-mail databases. Twitter is a free service with most accounts publicly visible.

Trump’s presidential campaign is known to have gained traction from one such freelance operation. Macedonia is one of several tech-savvy Eastern European nations where exploiting social media to garner ad revenue is a popular form of entrepreneurship. In the final weeks of the US presidential election, the small town of Veles in Macedonia attained short-lived fame because at least 100 pro-Trump websites were being run out of there. Many were filled with blatant fake news such as Trump slapped a voter on the campaign trail; Hillary Clinton faced criminal charges; the Pope endorsed Trump, and so on.

In early 2016, a tech-savvy teenager from Veles was running multiple blogs, cut-pasting content on a dozen different topics (sports, politics, health care) in the hope of generating ad revenue. He discovered that news about Trump generated lots of views, which of course translated into better advertising revenue. He also set up similar blogs extolling Bernie Sanders and Clinton but Trump supporters seemed more gullible and generated more ad clicks.

So he focussed on Trump, setting up websites like PoliticsHall.com and USAPolitics.co to ride the Trump campaign. He sourced content from dozens of obscure right-wing pro-Trump American sources, directly cut-pasting. He created Facebook groups with names like “My America, My Home”; “The Deplor­ables” and “Friends Who Support President Donald J Trump” to publicise the content. He and his equally tech-savvy friends created fake Facebook profiles and fake Twitter accounts to push those links out. Each of those stories was immediately discredited by mainstream media but that didn’t matter. Social media is a bubble and many Trump supporters continued to believe the lies. It all fell apart after the election, but by then the Macedonians had made their pile.

It wasn’t just the Macedonians, of course. The Trump campaign is reckoned to have had four times as many bots working in its favour compared to the Clinton campaign. By the final stages, the Trump bots were generating seven times as much Twitter volume on the relevant hashtags. The Trump campaign spent millions crafting its Facebook-Twitter campaign and micro-targeting the message to suit specific swing states. And, of course, the Russians are alleged to have helped Trump for their own reasons.

The Brexit campaign had a similar high-bot presence. Lies and fake statistics were generated by the pro-Brexit camp and then propagated by the use of these automated mechanisms. It worked. It was only after the referendum that a lot of Brexit voters realised that they had been sold a dummy.

The Indian Twittersphere has seen similar use of automations since at least 2013. The Anna Hazare agitation, right-wing friends of the BJP and the BJP itself have all used social media with consummate skill. Hashtags have been trended by using a combination of verified high-profile tweeters to make the original tweets followed with many automated accounts spewing out coordinated retweets.

Quite often the content has been spurious. Photos sourced from Bangladesh have been passed off as communal incidents in Kerala; the Ahmedabad riverfront has been Photoshopped, quotes from mediapersons have been selectively spliced together to create a misleading impression.

In addition to propagating this sort of fake news, Twitter has also been used cleverly to build Brand Modi and inversely, to brand Rahul Gandhi as incompetent, using the tools of satire and irony. The Congress is only beginning to catch up. It has lately started to make an impact by using catchy songs like the “Vikas Gando Thayo Chey (Development has gone mad)” lampoon in Gujarati.  

Bots have also been used to relentlessly troll political opponents and to troll mediapersons who are perceived to be unsympathetic. This is often done in the vilest of terms with abuse, rape threats and doxing of information thrown in. In at least one case, Delhi-based journalist Swati Chaturvedi was trolled by a tsunami of right-wing bots emanating out of South Thailand. Of course, trolling is not the sole preserve of political tweeters. Movie critics are trolled by fans of movie stars. Sports fans troll sports journalists.

The technology is agnostic. Bots are also used to propagate useful information and to run FAQs for prominent corporate brands. Entertainment channels release their programmes using bots. General knowledge questions are answered by bots. Bots flag changes in Wikipedia crowd-sourced edits of sensitive subjects.

But nobody has yet figured out a way of nailing down fake news and driving it off social media. Truth will certainly come out and every fake story is usually rapidly debunked by credible sources. Indeed, there is now a cottage industry of tweeters who make it their business to track down and debunk fake news on social media. Pratik Sinha, for example, runs Alt News that is dedicated to dissecting and debunking fake news and identifying fake accounts. But no matter how often a story is debunked, the social media bubble ensures that the fake narrative also stays alive and some people continue to believe it.  

Indeed, forget about fake news, nobody has figured out a fool-proof way to identify fake accounts for certain. This is considered so important that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (the same agency that funded the research that led to the internet) funded the “Twitter Bot Detection Challenge” inviting researchers to develop methods to identify “influence bots”.

The battle of the bots will continue. The 2019 election and the run-up to it will certainly see bots being deployed in large numbers on all sides and the freelancers will pile on as well. So the next time you see a tweet being retweeted by 20,000 people, be aware that it might just be a couple of geeky teenagers doing their thing.

How Twitter bots work

A Twitter bot is an automated account. It can tweet, retweet, like, follow, unfollow, or direct message. Bots are used for broadcasting helpful information, auto generating content, et cetera. They are also used for spamming and spreading fake news and propaganda and trying to trend hashtags by increasing the volume of tweets. Sometimes they are hired by users who just wish to show a high follower count.

Multiple bots – a panel – can be controlled by one person using software that’s easily available on the dark web. About 25 per cent of tweets are estimated to be created on bots, and Twitter submitted an estimate in 2016 that about 8.5 per cent of all accounts are bots. 

Most bots have few followers but clever manipulation can increase the follower count for bots by picking the right accounts to follow and tweeting on hot button subjects. While many bots perform legitimate tasks such as flagging Wikipedia edits or promoting brands, there is increasing concern about the way these are used to promote fake news and propaganda. 

Bots were extensively used during the Russia-Ukraine dispute and also during the 2016 Brexit and US presidential election campaigns. Most high-visibility Indian twitter accounts, including prominent politicians, have large numbers of bot followers. The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw a strong social media campaign crafted by the Bharatiya Janata Party that included the use of many bots. There are often determined efforts to trend hashtags on Indian twitter by using bots. There are accusations and counter-accusations by most political parties about the use of bots and there is apparent evidence in many cases.      

There have been many attempts to find fool-proof methods of flagging bots. Some of these are purely technical. Bots may tweet in inhumanly high volumes — sometimes they can churn out thousands of tweets in a day. Typically, bots panels will tweet and retweet the same contents in unison as well. But clever “bot managers” can also disguise themselves as legitimate accounts. 

The latest tool for bot detection is itself a bot called @Probabot that identifies and analyses political tweets using the Botometer, a tool developed by the Indiana University Network Science Institute and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research. This looks at the content of tweets, who is tagged, and how often, and who else is in their network.