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OPINION: Watch out for Twitter bots!

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Opinion writer Stephen Sponhour warns Twitter users to be cautious about interacting with potential bot accounts.

In 2010, internet trolling was just annoying. In 2018, it’s a threat to our political system. Russia’s social media misinformation campaign during the 2016 election is widely documented, but the continued use of these propaganda tactics in the years after the election has made it clear that these troll accounts were not just an election tactic, but part of an ongoing strategy.

Just last August, Facebook and Twitter removed hundreds of Russian and Iranian-based propaganda accounts from their platforms. For the social media giants, battling these accounts is like fighting the hydra: when they remove one, several others take its place. Until Silicon Valley comes up with an answer, it falls to the average social media user to use their own deductive reasoning to figure out when an agenda is being pushed.

Reading that last sentence, you may be thinking to yourself “we’re doomed”. But for a sophisticated propaganda movement carried out by high levels of foreign governments, these accounts are actually relatively easy to spot. The best way to identify the fake users that currently exist is to examine the ones that have already been caught.

One removed Twitter account, @Ten_GOP , is a perfect example. You can consider this the flagship of Russia’s election troll army, as the account garnered an impressively terrifying 100,000 followers, many of which were filler “bots”, or computer generated profiles that interact with the accounts run by trolls to promote them.

Impersonating the Tennessee Republican Party, the profile may at first glance have seemed like a normal, politically active account. Reading through the tweets, however, reveals a pattern unlike that of a legitimate conservative account. Tweeting more than just right-wing talking points, the pretend Volunteer State Republicans also posted conspiracy theories, including one alleging Hillary Clinton was responsible for a bombing that killed 6 people.

To sow racial discord, the account also made repeated references to being proud of “whiteness.” Its tweet history shows a suspiciously high percentage of its tweets being dedicated to denying Russian hacking of DNC officials.

Just because someone holds these viewpoints does not mean that they are a foreign operative. It is the pattern that we are looking for: consistently pro-Russian viewpoints, obviously false conspiracy theories, and over-the-top, divisive racial statements. Conservatives just want people to hear conservative ideas, whereas these targeted accounts want to spread as much division as possible.

So what should you do if you come across an account that checks off all three boxes? Based on what we know about Twitter’s algorithm, absolutely nothing. Engaging with a troll account tells the algorithm that you found the troll tweet engaging, meaning that it will display the tweet for more users who also might find it engaging.

When the other users also jump in and argue with a troll, the entire situation snowballs and the tweet reaches potentially millions of viewers. Nobody’s opinion is changed, and everyone is just a little bit angrier at those on the other side of the political spectrum. The only winners are those who want the worst for our country.

Avoid giving them the free advertising and focus your effort on more consequential ways of making change, like registering voters, volunteering for campaigns and organizing events in your community. Go outside. Our country is depending on it.

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