US elections see the rise of the Twitter bots

Alice_Micro_Robot_SwarmResearchers have shown that the lead candidates in both the US elections are relying on Twitter bots to get out their message.

Researchers demonstrated in their analysis of Twitter traffic during the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and found huge numbers of active bots which were being used to amplify support on Twitter.

Samuel Woolley, director of research at Political Bots, said automated accounts were tweeting messages with hashtags associated with the candidates. For example, #makeamericagreatagain or #draintheswamp for Trump; #imwithher for Clinton. The numbers were huge  –  one third of all tweets using pro-Trump hashtags were created by bots and one fifth of all Clinton hashtags were generated by automated accounts.

Woolley said that the bots were acting as a prosthesis for small groups of people to affect conversation on social media. This bot activity was often picked up by the “real media” to show who had a lot of support online.

“But what we found was that a lot of traffic surrounding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is actually manufactured,” he said.

This has been seen in the past. Such bots were used in the 2008 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Massachuetts Senate seat in 2008.

A conservative group in Iowa, the American Future Fund, set up nine Twitter accounts that sent 929 tweets and reached more than 60,000 people with messages accusing the Democratic candidate in the race, Martha Coakley, of being anti-Catholic, the researchers found.

“Political actors and governments worldwide have begun using bots to manipulate public opinion, choke off debate, and muddy political issues. Political bots tend to be developed and deployed in sensitive political moments when public opinion is polarized,” Woolley and his colleagues wrote in their report.

“The problem is that a lot of people don’t know bots exist, and that trends on social media or even online polls can be gamed by bots very easily.

It has been estimated that the proportion of bots to humans on the Internet is about 50-50.