Truth Tracker: Are bots amplifying #TrudeauMustGo? Twitter says no
A new piece of sophisticated technology is being used by fraudsters to scam unsuspecting people over the phone. (iStock/Bombuscreative)
TORONTO -- Twitter is downplaying concerns that hashtags criticizing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have shown evidence of inauthentic activity from U.S.-focused right-wing accounts.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, told CTVNews.ca that the company’s initial investigations into the #TrudeauMustGo hashtag have found no evidence of “substantial” bot activity amplifying the hashtag, despite multiple researchers continuing to voice concerns about potential hashtag manipulation.
“Our initial investigations have not found substantial bot activity amplifying the cited hashtag,” Roth told CTVNews.ca via email following a phone briefing regarding Twitter’s election integrity efforts.
“The overwhelming majority of discussions are from organic, authentic users - including people both inside and outside of Canada.”
Earlier this month analysis of about 34,000 tweets from approximately 4,896 accounts by researcher Marc Owen Jones revealed that 15 per cent of accounts using the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo between Sept. 3 and 5 were ones that primarily identified with U.S. right-wing politics. Those accounts also showed evidence of spam or bot-like activity.
Researchers say bots still active
Speaking to CTVNews.ca by phone this week, Stuart Shulman, founder and CEO of Twitter analytics software firm DiscoverText, noted that he has also found evidence of bot or troll accounts operating under the hashtag.
“There are many reasons to believe that a combination of human impostors, trolls, or automation-assisted actors are present,” Shulman said.
Jones also reported the activity of U.S. right-wing accounts tweeting under the hashtag remains consistent.
Roth says in this case and in other investigations of this kind, Twitter analyzes thousands of behaviours to determine the merit of an account.
He says although Twitter considers third-party research valuable, it often utilizes public data, such as account content, how often an account tweets, and the accounts it follows, to determine whether an account is bot or spam-like.
“These indicators alone aren't sufficient to determine whether or not an account is automated or behaving maliciously,” Roth explained.
He noted that Twitter has access to internal data that researchers wouldn’t – such as if someone used the same phone or computer to log into 10 different accounts at once.
But, by Roth’s own admission, the challenge of investigating these come down to the “mushiness” of what actually defines a bot or spam account.
According to Twitter's own literature, users who artificially amplify or disrupt conversations through the use of multiple accounts, repeatedly post identical or nearly identical tweets, or aggressively engage with tweets to drive attention, would be in violation of the site’s platform manipulation and spam policy.
But researchers like Jones note that not all spam activity is created equal, arguing that case-by-case studies may be required in some instances such as #TrudeauMustGo.
“In the case of the anti-Trudeau hashtags, we can identify a serious commonality of accounts linked to U.S. right-wing politics, who clearly behave in a way that is intended to promote Trump and stigmatize those perceived as liberal,” Jones told CTVNews.ca by email on Wednesday.
“While one could argue these may be real people with serious conviction, it is also behaviorally “spammy” for a group with a cohesive identity to spread certain information, often attacking specific politicians. It is a form of organised behavior in which often malicious information or content is spread in an unsolicited fashion.”
Why should this matter to you?
As Twitter noted, hashtags such as #TrudeauMustGo are being used every day by real people who simple oppose Trudeau and his party’s politics.
But experts warn that any spam or bot-like manipulation can impact public opinion by creating a bandwagon effect.
Dave Salisbury, cybersecurity expert at the University of Dayton, explained that the purpose of spam activity on Twitter is often to game the system to get hashtags to “trend,” which Twitter uses as a marker to keep track of conversations regionally.
“If messages that have #TrudeauMustGo attached start trending all over the place, then people are going to think everyone is saying that,” Salisbury told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.
“If people start getting the idea that everyone is thinking this, humans are social animals and start thinking ‘I should be thinking this too.’”
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