Nearly half of the Twitter accounts discussing ‘Reopening America’ may be bots

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have discovered that much of the discussion on Twitter about the pandemic and stay-at-home orders are being propagated by misinformation campaigns using Twitter bots.
The researchers collected 200 million tweets discussing the coronavirus since January, and they found that 82% of the top 50 influential retweeters are bots and 62% of the top 1,000 retweeters are bots as well.

The monitoring of tweets is ongoing and collections from Facebook, Reddit and YouTube have been added to the research.

Owen Video joined Good Morning San Diego to discuss the new study.

“We’re seeing up to two times as much bot activity as we’d predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises and elections,” said Kathleen Carley, a professor in the School of Computer Science’s Institute for Software Research and director of the Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems (CASOS) and Center for Informed Democracy & Social – Cybersecurity (IDeaS.)

A subset of tweets about “reopening America” reference conspiracy theories, such as hospitals being filled with mannequins or the coronavirus being linked to 5G towers.

“Conspiracy theories increase polarization in groups. It’s what many misinformation campaigns aim to do,” Carley said. “People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides.”

Carley said that spreading conspiracy theories leads to more extreme opinions, which can in turn lead to more extreme behavior and less rational thinking.

“Increased polarization will have a variety of real-world consequences, and play out in things like voting behavior and hostility towards ethnic groups,” Carley said.

Carley adds that not enough is known to develop a counter measure. Blocked accounts can resurface, and the nature of the network is such that you can’t just attack at individual points.

But she said average users can do a lot to help protect themselves from bot influence. There is no guarantee, but closely examining an account can offer indications of a bot, such as sharing links with subtle typos, many tweets coming out very quickly, or a user name and profile image that don’t seem to match up.

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