Concern over the use of Twitter and, more specifically, Twitter bots to sway political discourse is becoming a more pertinent issue as election season nears.
According to a new report from CBC, automated Twitter accounts are designed to “attract a lot of attention and stoke fear,” but in fact the issue might be a bit exaggerated as they’re only part of a bigger system designed to manipulate opinion online.
“There’s a lot of attention on bots as the central cause of our media woes,” said Fenwick McKelvey, an assistant professor at Montreal’s Concordia University who researches social media platforms. “Bots are, at best, a small part of it.”
Automated Twitter accounts, or Twitter bots, are run by software and are programmed to automatically tweet, retweet, like, and follow other accounts. It’s important to keep in mind that not all Twitter bots are designed to be malicious.
One of the perils of social media is that automated accounts and co-ordinated inauthentic activity can create the false appearance of widespread support (or opposition) for an issue, position or candidate — a phenomenon known as manufactured consensus.
This type of aggressive social media manipulation is not necessarily the norm in Canada, “but it’s a well recognized pattern in the States,” said Neal Rauhauser, a U.S.-based social media analyst and research consultant for the Social Media Intelligence Unit.
A recent example of Twitter bots shaping online opinion followed a trending hashtag on the micro-blogging service: #TrudeauMustGo. In July, the hashtag was one of the highest-trending on Twitter in Canada, and many of the accounts tweeting the hashtag “showed evidence of automation, such as tweeting at excessively high rates.”
To combat the problem, Twitter has taken measures to crack down on fake profiles. Last year, Twitter is reported to have suspended more than 70 million accounts in just two months.
“We have a team dedicated to monitoring inauthentic and spam activity for the Canadian election and it’s something that we will be banning if we see it happen,” said Michele Austin, head of government and public policy for Twitter Canada. “We do take these issues very, very seriously. The public conversation is never more important than during an election.”