Over the past month, there has been a huge influx on Twitter users urging for local and federal governments to reopen America despite concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. In a new study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University researchers, it has been suggested that almost half of those accounts pushing to reopen the economy are actually bots.
In a report published last week, researchers deduced that 62 percent of the 1,000 most influential retweeters on the platform also appeared to be bots. As Business Insider points out, the usual level of bot involvement on social media when it comes to U.S. politics is somewhere between 10 to 20 percent. The possible bots were identified using artificial intelligence processes, which analyzed the frequency of tweets, number of followers, and apparent location. When these accounts tweet more often than usual, or appear in one country one tweet and then another hours later, it's highly likely the account is a bot.
"We're seeing up to two times as much bot activity as we'd predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises and elections," said Kathleen Carley, professor at the School of Computer Science's Institute for Software Research and director of the Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems. She added that the increase of bot activity could be down to people having more time on their hands, but there's plenty of other potential reasons, too. "Because it’s global, it’s being used by various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas."
Of the tweets that reference "reopening America," 66 percent had come from accounts that had possibly used bots to spread their tweets, while 34 percent of tweets were from bots. "When we see a whole bunch of tweets at the same time or back to back, it's like they're timed," Carley added. "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."
While a significant amount of these tweets focus on the economical impacts of such a lockdown, it was noted that a lot of them reference conspiracy theories. "Conspiracy theories increase polarization in groups. It's what many misinformation campaigns aim to do," she said. "People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides. ... Increased polarization will have a variety of real-world consequences, and play out in things like voting behavior and hostility towards ethnic groups."
As of right now, the researchers did not determine the origins of the bot activity on Twitter. Notably, research has previously suggested that foreign nations utilized bots in the 2016 elections, but right now it's unclear if these "reopen America" tweets from bots are a similar situation.