In a now-familiar truth, scenario, malicious actors are creating bots to sow discontent and division. That's according to a new study out of Carnegie Mellon, which found that half of all Twitter calls to reopen the country may be from bots.
It adds a new chapter to the misinformation that helped stoke ire during the 2016 elections and led to awareness of the role of social media as arbiter of perceived truth and ultimately political power.
Since January, CMU researchers have collected 200 million tweets touching on the coronavirus. A whopping 82% of the top 50 influential retweeters are bots, the study found, and more than 60% of the top 1,000 retweeters are bots.
The existence of bots isn't so much a story, but the quantity that the COVID-19 crisis seems to have inspired is.
"We're seeing up to two times as much bot activity as we'd predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises, and elections," explains Kathleen Carley, professor in the School of Computer Science's Institute for Software Research.
According to the researchers, multiple factors likely contributed to the increase, including superfluous time (at least for those non-parents out there). But it also seems as though the increase is coordinated, with groups hiring firms to create bots. The global nature of the pandemic also makes it an enticing target.
"Because it's global, it's being used by various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas," Carley says.
There are some telltale signs of active bots, and determining what does and doesn't qualify is a fascinating challenge, one aided by cutting edge technology. Artificial intelligence processes account information and looks at things such as the number of followers, frequency of tweeting, and an account's mentions network.
"Tweeting more frequently than is humanly possible, or appearing to be in one country and then another a few hours later is indicative of a bot," Carley said.
Among the misinformation being spread by bots, one trend includes potential cures. But bots are also contributing to conversations about stay at home orders, which are creating tension and inspiring pushback nationwide.
Of course, a homemade bot programmed by a bored rabble rouser is a different thing than a coordinated bot campaign. Unfortunately, there are significant signs of coordination around calls for "reopening America." For example, a large number of accounts have been recently created, which is indicative of a campaign. What you might call cyborg accounts, those that are possibly humans with bot assistants, generate 66% of the tweets, while accounts that are definitely bots generate 34% of the tweets.
Why is this happening?
"Conspiracy theories increase polarization in groups. It's what many misinformation campaigns aim to do," Carley said. "People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides. Increased polarization will have a variety of real-world consequences, and play out in things like voting behavior and hostility towards ethnic groups."
The script is familiar, and the actors may be as well.
"We do know that it looks like it's a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that," Carley said.
Long story short, be vigilant and practice good social media literacy.