Bots are taking over Twitter. Research by the University of Southern California and Indiana University has indicated that about 15 percent (48 million) of all Twitter accounts are operated by bots. Twitter insists that the figure is around 8.5 percent. To be clear, not all these bots are bad. Some are actually beneficial. For instance, there are bots that inform people of natural disasters. However, there are some that are being used for propaganda, most especially by Russia.
Russia is still in the news for using these bots to sow discord among US voters and sway them toward voting for Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Another little-reported incident is Russia using these bots to sway UK voters into voting to leave the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Days before the referendum, more than 150,000 Russian bots, which had previously concentrated on tweets relating to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, suddenly started churning out pro-Brexit tweets encouraging the UK to leave the EU. These bots sent about 45,000 pro-Brexit tweets within two days of the referendum, but the tweets fell to almost zero immediately after the referendum.
What’s worse is that Russia also uses these same bots to get Twitter to ban journalists who expose its extensive use of bots for propaganda. Once Russia detects an article reporting the existence of the bots, it finds the author’s Twitter page and gets its bots to follow the author en masse until Twitter bans the author’s account on suspicion of being operated by a bot.
The worst is that Russia has seriously improved on its bot game. These days, it has moved from using full bots to using cyborgs—accounts that are jointly operated by humans and bots. This has made it more difficult for Twitter to detect and ban these accounts.