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With the 2020 election campaign already in full swing, it’s not out of the question that we will see the same infiltration of “Russian bots” that we saw during the 2016 election cycle. Inevitably, there will be external forces (and not just from Russia) looking to influence the outcome of the U.S. election in a way that suits their interests. So would you be able to identify a “Russian bot” if you spotted one in the wild? Here’s what you need to know…
First of all, Russian agents do not necessarily operate “Russian bots” – the term has become a sort of catchall phrase to describe any automated social media account that can be integrated into a broader online campaign. In other words, a series of bots could be used re-tweet, like or comment on certain content, thereby amplifying their overall impact. For example, if a presidential candidate tweets out something, a swarm of bots could automatically respond to him or her, thereby giving the impression of a massive crowd reaction. Or, the bots could be set up to tweet out any news items that are supportive of a particular cause on a 24/7 basis. With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper.
Rule #1: Bots generate tremendous amounts of content
Perhaps the defining aspect of a “bot” is that it is constantly working to support a certain cause, or to attack something that it does not believe in. While a human might be hard-pressed to send out 10 tweets a day, a bot can send out 50, 100 or even 1,000 tweets per day. Thus, if you spot a social media account that is extremely hyperactive in how much content it generates, you’ve probably found a bot…
Rule #2: Bots have strange personal profiles
On social media, bot creators spend a lot of time defining what bots will do all day (and night), but they don’t spend a lot of time building up their personal profiles. Often, social media profile photos will be left blank (e.g. the “Twitter egg” image), and Twitter handles are sometimes just a nonsensical string of letters and numbers. Personal profiles are usually left blank as well. And most of these bots were set up fairly recently – so if you see that a social media account was set up for the first time in 2018 or 2019, that might be a tip-off that you’ve encountered a new recruit for a social media bot army.
Rule #3: Bots tend to hang out together
The whole point of creating bots is to have a swarm of voices all talking about the same thing, all at the same time. Thus, bots link to bots. Bots re-tweet other bots. And bots follow other bots. So if you check out the followers of a bot social media account, you’ll often spot lots of suspicious-looking accounts. It’s literally an echo chamber, with bots echoing other bots.
Just beware of “false positives,” because sometimes humans act a lot like bots – we go off on massive Twitter rants, or we only re-tweet people who think exactly like us. It’s too easy to dismiss someone who doesn’t think like us as a “Russian bot” – and it’s led to embarrassing situations where journalists have mistakenly accused some social media accounts of being bots. If you’ve found a real bot, though, don’t be afraid to report it to any of the big social media platforms, all of which have pledged to help purge these bot accounts.