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Is Twitter Controlled by Bots and Trolls?

What if special interest groups and foreign governments were not just trying to control the dialogue on Twitter, what if they actually were? If large amounts of what we see on Twitter were found to be fake, could countries like Russia, China, and Iran be effectively dictating our political dialogue?

What if Twitter wasn’t so divisive just because of the algorithm, or human nature, but because those seeking to sow division have been able to do so at scale on their platform?

China’s Digital Army

There is a lot of data that should be massively concerning.  The AP, in a joint study with the Oxford Internet Institute, notes, “China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts.”1 They found, for example, that roughly half of the retweets of one Chinese diplomat over a 7 month period were accounts that were later banned for policy violations.

An analysis by Sparktoro suggests between 5-30% of all Twitter accounts are fake, and social media misinformation online has been found to be inflaming the Israel-Palestinian conflict.2

Millions of Fake Accounts?

 In a shocking story, the Washington Post reported that at one point Twitter was suspending around 1 million accounts a day and about 70 million accounts in over two months in 2018.3 While it’s clear they are taking action, the sheer number of accounts we’re talking about suggests the problem is massive and may have gotten too big for them to solve.

To give an analogy, take undocumented/illegal immigrants coming across the southern border. Higher apprehensions generally means there are more immigrants trying to get in. In a similar way, Twitter suspending a massive number of accounts could suggest there is an even more massive number that are falling through the cracks.

America Up for Grabs

If they missed just a few million accounts, what could those accounts influence? Could they influence public policy, political parties, and Presidential candidates? We’d consider a tweet viral if it got, just a few thousand retweets. Imagine would you could do with a million accounts.

Banning Accounts Isn’t Enough

Just a tiny fraction of these accounts (a few thousand) were discovered by the Mueller investigation, banned, and released to the public. Yet, while Twitter banned these specific accounts, many of the accounts these trolls retweeted are still live. One study suggests that the second most mentioned user by IRA trolls is an account that’s still live with over 130k followers.4 Even if troll accounts are banned, that still leaves the non-troll accounts they’ve boosted live. They can still influence people by helping divisive accounts grow, even if they themselves get banned.

Incalculable Effects

If millions of accounts have potentially been assets of foreign governments and special interests, what have they already done to our dialogue? Which influencers today, are influencers, no because real users liked their content, but because the governments of Russia, China, and Iran did?

Did They Already Succeed?

Researchers from the non-partisan RAND Group said this of Russian disinformation efforts,

The Russian objective is to create an illusion of deep-seated divisions between people like you and people who aren’t like you, so that you won’t be able to agree on anything.5

Is there any doubt this is a prevalent effect Twitter use has on users? Could we imagine the events on January 6th without Twitter? Have we faced up to the massive extremism problem on the platform, with popular accounts questioning the legitimacy of the United States Government, and attacking our own law enforcement agencies?6

Is Today’s Twitter Compromised?

Many assume the toxicity we see on Twitter is due to their algorithm combined with simple human nature. What if it was actually just as much caused by foreign governments, wielding millions of accounts, shaping the platform into what it has become?

Shut it Down?

Will further restrictions help, or just cement the influence foreign governments had on the platform, making it difficult for new voices to replace the ones they’ve supported?

It’s impossible to turn back the clock and remove the influence foreign adversaries have had (and continue to have) on Twitter. Maybe the only real solution is to shut Twitter down for good.

  1. AP: Army of fake fans boosts China’s messaging on Twitter
  2. New York Times: Lies on Social Media Inflame Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  3. Twitter is sweeping out fake accounts like never before, putting user growth at risk
  4. The Study is apparently from The Data Science Lab at in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland
  5. How You Can Fight Russia’s Plans to Troll Americans During Campaign 2020 by Marek N. Posard, James V. Marrone, Todd C. Helmus
  6. Example of questioning legitimacy of the Government, 1, 2 (see tweet mentioning, “rebellion” in example 2). Our story on the prevalence of attacking the FBI on Twitter.

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