Twitter Bots Drove the Push to 'Reopen America,' Study Finds

By Joanna Nelius on at

This might not come as a surprise if you ever use Twitter, but it turns out bots are driving the push to “reopen America” on the platform.

According to Business Insider, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that about half of more than 200 million tweets related to Covid-19 that have been sent since January appear to be from bots. About half of all accounts tweeting about “reopening America” appeared to be bots, and 60 per cent of the 1,000 most influential retweeters appeared to be bots. Of the top 50 influential accounts, 82 per cent are bots. Basically, a whole lot of fake accounts are artificially inflating the “movement” to reopen America. The researchers were able to categorise more than 100 types of inaccurate Covid-19 stories, but tweets about ending stay-at-home orders were the most frequent.

They identified the bogus Twitter accounts by using artificial intelligence to track where the tweets were coming from, the number of followers and the frequency of tweets coming from a single account. Kathleen Carley, a computer-science professor who led the research, said the bots tweet more frequently than is humanly possible or tweet from different locations on opposite sides of the world just hours apart. (That’s a little suspect when few people are jetting around the globe right now.)

The researchers also looked at whether similar hashtags and phrases were used from one account to the next, which is an indication that the messaging was copied and pasted from one tweet to another. Combine that with tweets that spit out faster than any human could possibly make on their own, and you’ve got something that looks, behaves, and probably is a Twitter bot.

Additionally, researchers discovered that 66 per cent of tweets came from real people using bot accounts to spread their message as far as possible, and the other 34 per cent came from actual bots. Unfortunately, researchers were unable to identify where the bot activity originally started from. They aren’t sure if it’s mostly coming from within the U.S, outside the U.S., or maybe a mix of both.

Bot activity is nothing new on social media platforms, especially around elections or natural disasters, the Carnegie Mellon researchers said. Usually bot activity is around 10 to 20 per cent during those times, but since the global pandemic started, bot activity has surged to twice as much, possibly due to the fact that more people have the time to set up more elaborate bot networks. The number of groups that hire firms to run bot accounts has increased, too.

“Because [the pandemic is] global, it’s being used by various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas,” Carley said in the Carnegie Mellon release.

This isn’t great news for Twitter, which recently decided to step up its anti-misinformation campaign by cracking down on users who tweet unfounded conspiracy theories like “5G causes coronavirus.” The company is also testing new reply controls that could make it harder to stop or slow down the spread of misinformation. The study reveals that Twitter needs to do a better job of weeding out the bots that clog up the platform and make it difficult to tell who’s real and who’s fake.

Featured photo: Alastiar Pike/AFP (Getty Images)