Twitter bots propel coronavirus reopening discussion: study

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Nearly half the Twitter user discussing coronavirus reopenings on the platform could be bots, a new study by the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science has found.

Researchers collected more than 200 million tweets about the virus starting in January and found that of the top 50 most influential retweeters, 82 percent were bots; of the top 1,000, 62 percent were bots.

Accounts that were possibly humans with bot assistants generated 66 percent of tweets discussing "reopening America," while 34 percent were definitely bots, the study found.

"We're seeing up to two times as much bot activity as we'd predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises and elections," Kathleen Carley, a professor in the School of Computer Science's Institute for Software Research, said in a statement.

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Researchers identified bot profiles using a combination of artificial intelligence and human processes based on a number of factors such as users who tweeted posts faster than humanly possible or users who appeared to be tweeting from two different countries at once.

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"When we see a whole bunch of tweets at the same time or back to back, it's like they're timed," Carley said. "We also look for use of the same exact hashtag, or messaging that appears to be copied and pasted from one bot to the next."

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She added that there has been a surge in bots over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic because many people have more time on their hands and more groups are recruiting firms to run bot accounts all over the world, the study notes.

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Because COVID-19 is a global issue, it is widely recognized as "an opportunity to meet political agendas," Carley said. Some of the bots appear to use tactics similar to Russian and Chinese bot accounts.

"We do know that it looks like it's a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that," Carley said.

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Users can identify bot accounts by closely examining profiles; a fake account might tweet posts that contain typos, use the same hashtag or tweet faster than humanly possible, as Carley noted.

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"Even if someone appears to be from your community, if you don't know them personally, take a closer look, and always go to authoritative or trusted sources for information," she said. "Just be very vigilant."

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