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With the 2022 mid-term 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 2016/2020 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 2021 or 2022, 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.