How do you spot a Russian bot?
A team of researchers has isolated the characteristics of bots on Twitter through an examination of bot activity related to Russian political discussions.
Its findings, reported in the journal Big Data, provide new insights into how Russian accounts influence online exchanges using bots, or automated social media accounts, and trolls, which aim to provoke or disrupt.
“There is a great deal of interest in understanding how regimes and political actors use bots in order to influence politics,” explains NYU Professor Joshua Tucker, director of the Jordan Centre for the Advanced Study of Russia and one of the paper’s co-authors.
“Russia has been at the forefront of trying to shape the online conversation using tools like bots and trolls, so a first step to understanding what Russian bots are doing is to be able to identify them.”
The findings reveal some notable differences between human and automated posts - but also several similarities, which may stymie bot detection.
“Bots are much more likely to use online platforms while humans frequently use mobile devices,” notes co-author Denis Stukal, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Politics.
“However, humans and bots are not dramatically different from each other on a number of other features that characterise their tweeting activity - similarities that reveal a relatively high level of bot sophistication.”
Other patterns revealed how bots differ from human posts. The researchers found the following:
- Human tweets are more likely to be geo-located.
- Bots retweet more often than humans do.
- The most common type of bot is one that tweets news headlines without links to the original source of news.
“This suggests that an important strategy in the use of bots for the purposes of propaganda might be to promote specific news stories and news media in the rankings of search engines.”
Are you worried about Russian social media bots disrupting Australian elections?