Researchers Uncover Twitter Bot Army That’s 350,000 Strong

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 20, 2017 3:27 pm

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There’s an army lurking in the underbelly of Twitter.

Legions of fake Twitter accounts, called bots, roam the virtual social media landscape, often wreaking havoc wherever they go. You’ve probably encountered these accounts, those so-called eggheads, in Twitter’s untamed wilderness. They seem drawn to political conversations, but are often used to artificially inflate the number of followers a profile has, send spam and manipulate online sentiment. Herded by shadowy “botmasters,” these accounts can be financially lucrative, especially after they’ve been around for a few years.

Right Under Our Noses

Two researchers from University College London claim to have discovered an army of 350,000 such bots hiding in plain sight, distinguished by their affinity for tweeting quotes from Star Wars novels. And, like Aragorn bursting into the throne room at Helm’s Deep to deliver the news of an encroaching orc army, they have come to warn us.

Juan Echeverria and Shi Zhou discovered the botnet while conducting research on automated accounts. Drawing from a random sample of one percent of Twitter users, and filtering for just English-speaking accounts, they noticed something odd in the distribution of geo-tagged tweets. While most of the tweets came from urban areas in North America and Europe — as expected — a puzzling number seemed to come from uninhabited areas such as the middle of the ocean or the desert. Diving deeper, they found that almost all of these unexpected tweets quoted Star Wars novels, and were active for a very short period in June and July of 2013. They also had very few friends and followers and were all listed as coming from a Windows phone.

star-wars-botnet

A map of where tweets from the Star War bots are geotagged to. (Credit: Echvarria and Zhou)

These characteristics were classic hallmarks of bot accounts. By geotagging tweets to random locations, the accounts give the impression that they exist in the real world, and will often draw source material from books and online articles to preserve human-sounding syntax.

Intrigued, the researchers created a machine learning algorithm to spot more members of the “Star Wars botnet”. They searched for terms related to the series, such as “Jedi,” looking only at accounts that had fewer than 10 followers and 31 friends and which only tweeted from Windows phones.

They’re All Around Us

Their search, as detailed in a paper published this month in preprint server arXiv, turned up a surprising number of dormant accounts all likely linked to the same individual. While the researchers don’t know why the botmaster spawned the accounts in the first place, or why they’ve remained silent for so long, they do suggest that the network could be a lucrative investment.

Vast legions of malleable Twitter accounts are valuable to both corporations, for whom they can pump up follower counts, and to individuals and organizations interested in flooding Twitter with spam or creating the illusion of a consensus around controversial issues. A small percentage of the bots may have already been sold, they say, as they appear to follow accounts outside of the bot network. As older accounts are more valuable — it’s hard to trust a Twitter account created two days ago after all — their shadowy master could simply be waiting for his investment to mature.

The researchers say that they were lucky to find this bot army, and that there are likely other networks of automated Twitter accounts hiding among the social network’s more than 300 million accounts. In fact, they say that they recently discovered another, even larger army of some 500,000 bots, also of mysterious origin.

Keep a weather eye out, citizens of Twitter. There’s more out there than meets the eye.

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  • Byron Spencer

    I used to suspect, rather quietly, that such an army exists. But now, with concrete evidence, it is truly depressing to know. Kudos to these researchers! Surely, these corporations and private individuals should be held liable to a certain extent This is fraud after all; creating “people” to increase your social media clout or to sway an online sentiment towards a biased scheme.

    • OWilson

      All media exists to make money or to exert influence.

      Newspapers inflate their circulation numbers by dumping free copies, and run fake news and advertising that is demonstrably untruthful, “Canadian stumbles on 5 Casino secrets” etc.

      Along with TV Networks they too, advertise, and are biased in their political coverage. They endorse their candidates editorially or subliminally. They produce phony polls.

      Social media is just another profit engine.

      Nobody, but nobody, wants to give you complete, unbiased news for free.

      It’s a jungle out there. It pays to be skeptical :)

      • Jeff Mo

        “Newspapers inflate their circulation numbers by dumping free copies”

        That certainly can be true. Also, there are circulation auditors that do not count “dumped” free copies as equal in quality to actual subscribers. But then again, not all newspapers use these auditing services.

        • OWilson

          Much like CNN’s overwhelming presence on public space TV, Time Magazine’s usual spot in your dentists waiting room, and Hillary’s continuing sales of her books from the local bargain bin, it’s an old game.

          How many of Hillary’s “Hard Choices” were pre-purchased in bulk by the usual suspects, academia, unions, colleges,. public libraries, and other left wing bastions?

          How many folks know that the NYT “Best Seller” list has nothing to do with sales figures?

          The left learned a long time ago that if you control education, academia, popular culture and the press, you will have far more power than the current elected political leader.

          That’s why, right now, they are in turmoil and lashing out in frustration against a political machine that finally realized how important the Media is to your political message!

          Hung with their own petard! :)

      • Torgrim Ruud

        You can tell quite easily if they are trustworthy on whether they link to sources. That said – it depends on the sources. But in general there are lots of trash out there, but there are many quality newspapers out there.

      • Adrian Bartoli

        Modern propaganda works by getting you to believe nothing. If all news is propaganda, then sourceless personal rants are all on an equal playing field with carefully researched investigative journalism. To those who might be open to skepticism, they just say “Hey isn’t it troubling that the media is a business?” To those on their way to conversion they say “Trust only these sources.” Finally, all news is fake, and words cease to have meaning or value.

        Quoting one’s exact words and pointing to radical inconsistencies with other statements, or with reality itself, is not something that one should be able to object to in a healthy, functioning civic environment. But they cannot tolerate these distinctions. Their worldview is unitary. They are a liberated nothingness and the enemy is everything. They make all words mean “bad” and they make all words mean “the enemy” because their only focus is to discredit and destroy. In the end they will only need one word.

        “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true. The totalitarian leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, people could believe the most fantastic statements one day; and if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism — instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that their leaders knew all along that these were lies and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

        “They have chosen hate because hate is a faith to them; at the outset they have chosen to devaluate words and reasons. It comforts them, relieving them of the burden of worry and confusion. How entirely at ease they feel as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions appear to them. If out of courtesy they consent for a moment to defend their point of view, they lend themselves but do not give themselves. They try simply to project their intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse.

        Never believe that they are unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous. But words are an amusement for them; it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. They delight in giving ridiculous answers, discrediting the seriousness of their interlocutors.

        “They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade but to intimidate and disconcert. If pressed them too closely, they will simply say that the time for argument is past, that there are more important matters at hand. They are impervious to reason and to experience, not because of strong conviction; but rather their conviction is strong because they have chosen firstly to be impervious.”

        -Jean-Paul Sartre, discussing the anti-Semitism that led to the rise of the Nazi party and World War 2

    • Dana Mahood

      If you weren’t a sheep, you wouldn’t fool yourself. 😉

  • Victor

    There are whole divisions of Twitter soldiers in KGB and China Party service.

    • demand

      If you don’t think your domestic intelligence agencies use them too you, I have a bridge to sell you.

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        • Doggo

          Funny bot. Gif

    • ddearborn

      Hmmm

      Actually it was Israel that pioneered the use this kind of subversive activity. And Israel first used on against the United States……

    • Nobodi’ Bilderberger

      but not in the cia and mossad

  • Guy

    Is it really machine learning when they are just looking for certain characters in profiles?

    • Kevin Scales

      It is if the machine is discovering the characteristics rather than just being told what characteristics to look for.

    • Rob Neff

      It sounds more impressive when you call it ‘machine learning’.

      • http://secure51.com Brenda Boyd

        I’ve earned 104 thousand dollars in 2016 by doing an online job a­n­d I did it by working in my own time f­­o­­r few hours /daily. I was following a business opportunity I was introduced by this company i found online and I am happy that i earned so much extra income. It’s so newbie friendly and I’m just so grateful that i found it. Here’s what I did… TIMELY84.COM

  • racquetman

    Can we get rid of all of the bots [and geeks] that just won’t stop quoting Star Wars like those movies are the greatest accomplishment in human history?

    • OWilson

      These are folks that get their philosophy from sci-fi Star Wars or cartoons.

      It’s so easy for them.

      Just point your Warp Drive capsule to the nearest Worm Hole, you can be on Mars in 10 minutes, and have it Terraformed to order in a couple weeks.

      Deep freeze the next generation and shoot them to the next star, using a Black Hole as a booster, Unfreeze them to start a new population that can continue to populate the universe and show lesser aliens how to ban all wars and weapons of mass destruction.

      Then there’ll be cookies and milk, later! :)

  • flow ir in

    the force is strong with those bots

    • Sid

      But are these the bots we were looking for?

      • http://secure49.com Aiden Diaz

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        • American

          Spam

          • Maia

            Flag and Block spammers.

  • janethcny

    The vast majority of the BOT accounts were brought back to life during the US Presidential Election Season. My guess is at least 90% of them are pro-Trump, and they helped Russia and Trump sway the election in his favor by constantly spewing false news and outright lies.

    • TylerDurden0xb

      More like 90% of them are pro-HIllary. She, not Trump, was the one that had the Propaganda machine ala Correct the Record, working in full effect during the election. There are many reports of them in places like Reddit.

      Democrats are doing themselves a disservice by continuing to bitch and moan about the Russians. Maybe if the DNC hadn’t shoved a hated and morally flawed candidate down the electorate’s throats and instead gone with the guy that was legitimately polling to beat Trump, we wouldn’t be hearing all the crying we are today.

    • JimmyGand

      Did the bots vote too.

  • HvacNews

    Do these bots buy products? Maybe
    This is why Twitter shares got destroyed. Bots must be taught wants.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Vekf_2952U HWR
  • Joe Blow

    You are not smart because you use a smart phone. You don’t really have a lot of “friends” because someone hit a button at your social media site. The things that really count in life…good health, love, honesty, and thanks for sentience have been carefully replaced with over consumption of toxic food and drink, hedonism, getting over on others, and disregard for the gift of life.

    God damnit, what does it take to wake you up?? 😕

    • David Mason

      Eminent death.

  • Susan Christie

    Am I missing something here? Don’t they mean Lord of the Rings novels, not Star Wars?

  • Overburdened_Planet

    And Mitt Romney had fake followers, but you probably knew that.

    What you may not have known is that Romney is a bot too…

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