Surprise! Surprise! More fake bot accounts have been found on Twitter. If this is coming as a shock to you, then you must have been living under a rock all this while. Twitter, which was once a hub of comebacks, spiteful (and sometimes important) public banter, now belongs to a select few with the power of countless bot accounts at their fingerprints. A recent research undertaken at University College London only goes to confirm the sad state of affairs at the once celebrated microblogging platform.
The research discovered huge networks of bot accounts on Twitter, the largest consisting of 350,000 fake accounts. The extreme scale of destruction by not one, but multiple networks like these goes to show the decline of quality content on the platform. And, it’s nothing new. Twitter has been notorious for housing bot accounts for a while now, even if the company wishes to turn a blind eye to the problem. Last year, we met up with Twitter’s Senior Director of Business Development, Michael Fisher, and Arvinder Gujral, Senior Director of Business Development, Twitter (APAC), who collectively dismissed ‘bots’ as a “fancy four letter word.” Probing the matter further, gave us a textbook response saying, “We are tackling that at many levels. Sometimes algorithmically, sometimes manually, we are working towards making it more streamlined. It’s a complex problem and there’s no easy solution. It’s an AI problem and we are working on it.”
Clearly, Twitter has not looked into the situation, or has chosen to ignore the same, given that the user base of the platform is on a constant decline thanks to competitors like Snapchat and Instagram, that have left Twitter miles behind in the social media race. These fake bot accounts not only account for Twitter’s user numbers, but are actually responsible for misleading the public.
During the recent and highly controversial US elections, Twitter’s fake bot accounts played a huge role in swaying public sentiment on the platform, or at least tried to do so. According to a research conducted by the Oxford University, between the first 2 Presidential debates, one third of pro Trump Tweets and a fifth of Pro Hillary Tweets came from fake and automated bot accounts. In fact, the now U.S. President, Trump, even boasted of his 30-million strong Twitter and Facebook followers. Were those followers real or fake? Nobody knows. During the US elections, it was also discovered that hoaxers from 4Chan and Reddit used bots to game polls online in favour of Trump. In addition, a pro-Trump bot named @amrightnow spammed Twitter with 1200 posts on the final debate day alone. These are just a few, of the thousands of examples of fake bot accounts working to influence opinion on social media platforms like Twitter.
Another popular instance of fake bot accounts on Twitter hits closer to home. A report by Opindia revealed a popular Indian television channel, using bots to Tweet and Retweet its content. While we won’t name names here, you can just click on the link and find out who it was. More that swaying public opinion, such attempts are made to rig social media engagement numbers, purely for marketing purposes, giving an unfair advantage to those who can afford to pay for large botnets.
“It is difficult to assess exactly how many Twitter users are bots,” said graduate student Juan Echeverria, one of the computer scientists at University College London, who discovered the massive networks of fake Twitter accounts.
While bots can also be used constructively on Twitter, like the @she_not_he bot that voraciously defends Caitlyn Jenner’s sexual orientation, it is difficult to differentiate between real bots and bots acting like humans.
In conclusion, the question we need to ask ourselves is how much we trust social media to fulfill our appetite for important information. The answer is - a lot! This needs to change. Users cannot be blindly trusting platforms which are plagued by fake accounts with evil agendas.
As for Twitter, the microblogging platform’s days are numbered, if it can’t pull out a magic rabbit out of a hat anytime soon. The platform was up for sale and may still be so, but it failed to gather bids for its business. Meanwhile, the company has lost a number of top executives to competition, given the dire straits it finds itself in. Will it do anything to keep up its user numbers? Even if it means knowingly allowing fake accounts? One can never know.