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Half the Twitter accounts pushing to 'reopen America' are bots

4 min read

The other half are also pretty dangerous…

“A lot of disinformation is done through innuendo or done through illogical statements, and those are hard to discover,”

“Because [the pandemic is] global, it’s being used by various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas,”

  • There’s been a surge in bot activity in the past month in online discussions about reopening America from COVID-19 shutdowns, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said this week.
  • The researchers analyzed over 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 and found that roughly half the accounts were likely bots.
  • They identified the bots by looking for accounts that tweeted more frequently than humanly possible or whose location appeared to rapidly switch among different countries.
  • It’s unclear who’s behind the surge in bot activity or whether they’re originating from the US or abroad.…

There has been a huge upswell of Twitter bot activity since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, amplifying medical disinformation and the push to reopen America.

Kathleen M. Carley and her team at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy & Social Cybersecurity have been tracking bots and influence campaigns for a long time. Across US and foreign elections, natural disasters, and other politicized events, the level of bot involvement is normally between 10 and 20%, she says.

But in a new study, the researchers have found that bots may account for between 45 and 60% of Twitter accounts discussing covid-19. Many of those accounts were created in February and have since been spreading and amplifying misinformation, including false medical advice, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and pushes to end stay-at-home orders and reopen America.

They follow well-worn patterns of coordinated influence campaigns, and their strategy is already working: since the beginning of the crisis, the researchers have observed a greater polarization in Twitter discourse around the topic.


But it’s not just the volume of accounts that worries Carley, the center’s director. Their patterns of behavior have grown more sophisticated, too. Bots are now often more deeply networked with other accounts, making it easier for them to disseminate their messages widely. They also engage in more strategies to target at-risk groups like immigrants and minorities and help real accounts engaged in hate speech to form online groups.


The system looks for 16 different maneuvers that disinformation accounts can perform, including “bridging” between two groups (connecting two online communities), “backing” an individual (following the account to increase the person’s level of perceived influence), and “nuking” a group (actions that lead to an online community being dismantled).

Through the analysis, they identified more than 100 types of inaccurate covid-19 stories and found that not only were bots gaining traction and accumulating followers, but they accounted for 82% of the top 50 and 62% of the top 1,000 influential retweeters. The influence of each account was calculated to reflect the number of followers it reached as well as the number of followers its followers reached.

The researchers have begun to analyze Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube to understand how disinformation spreads between platforms. The work is still in the early stages, but it’s already revealed some unexpected patterns. For one, the researchers have found that many disinformation stories come from regular websites or blogs before being picked up on different social platforms and amplified. Different types of stories also have different provenance patterns. Those claiming that the virus is a bioweapon, for example, mostly come from so-called “black news” sites, fake news pages designed to spread disinformation that are often run outside the US. In contrast, the “reopen America” rhetoric mostly comes from blogs and Facebook pages run in the US.…

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