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Bots and trolls control a shocking amount of online conversation

Even as a social media researcher, I underestimate the degree to which my opinion is shaped by trolls and bots. Here’s what you can do to guard against them.

Bots and trolls control a shocking amount of online conversation
[Source images: AlexeyVS/iStock; masterzphotois/iStock]
, I can explain—and offer some ideas for what you can do about it.

Bots and sock puppets

2020欧洲杯平台Social media platforms don’t simply feed you the posts from the accounts you follow. They use what you see based in part on “likes” or “votes.” A post is shown to some users, and the more those people react—positively or negatively—the more it will be highlighted to others. Sadly, lies and extreme content often garner more reactions and so .

But who is doing this “voting”? Often it’s an army of accounts, called bots, that do not correspond to real people. In fact, they’re controlled by hackers, often on the other side of the world. For example, researchers have reported that .

As a social media researcher, I’ve seen “like” posts in unison. I’ve seen , far more than a human being could. I’ve seen an account claiming to be an “All-American patriotic army wife” from Florida post obsessively about immigrants in English, but whose account history showed it used to post in Ukranian.

Fake accounts like this are called ““—suggesting a hidden hand speaking through another identity. In many cases, this deception can easily be revealed with a look at the account history. But in some cases, there is a big investment in making sock puppet accounts seem real.

Now defunct, the ‘Jenna Abrams’ account was created by hackers in Russia.

For example, , was quoted by mainstream media outlets like for her xenophobic and far-right opinions, but was actually an invention controlled by the , a and not a living, breathing person.

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Trolls often don’t care about the issues as much as they care about . For example, researchers in 2018 concluded that some of the most influential accounts on both sides of divisive issues, like , were controlled by troll farms.

2020欧洲杯平台More than just fanning disagreement, trolls want to encourage . Divide and conquer. Distrust anyone who might serve as a leader or trusted voice. Cut off the head. Demoralize. Confuse. Each of these is a devastating attack strategy.

Even as a social media researcher, I underestimate the degree to which my opinion is shaped by these attacks. I think I am smart enough to read what I want, discard the rest, and step away unscathed. Still, when I see a post that has millions of likes, part of me thinks it must reflect public opinion. The social media feeds I see are affected by it and, what’s more, I am affected by the opinions of my real friends, who are also influenced.

The entire society is being to believe they are on opposite sides of many issues when .

I have focused primarily on U.S.-based examples, but the same types of attacks are playing out around the world. By turning the voices of democracies against each other, authoritarian regimes may begin to look preferable to chaos.

Platforms have been slow to act. Sadly, misinformation and disinformation drives usage and is . Failure to act has often been justified with concerns about . Does freedom of speech include the right to create 100,000 fake accounts with the express purpose of spreading lies, division, and chaos?

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Taking control

So what can you do about it? You probably already know to check the sources and dates of what you read and forward, but common-sense media literacy advice is not enough.

2020欧洲杯平台First, use social media more deliberately. Choose to catch up with someone in particular, rather than consuming only the default feed. You might be amazed to see what you’ve been missing. Help your friends and family find your posts by using features like pinning key messages to the top of your feed.

Second, to remove accounts with clear signs of automation. Ask for more controls to manage what you see and which posts are amplified. Ask for more transparency in how posts are promoted and who is placing ads. For example, complain directly about the Facebook news feed or tell about your concerns.

Third, be aware of the trolls’ favorite issues and be skeptical of them. They may be most interested in creating chaos, but they also show clear preferences on some issues. For example, trolls want to quickly without real management to flatten the COVID-19 curve. They also clearly supported over the other. It’s worth asking yourself how these positions might be good for Russian trolls, but bad for you and your family.

Perhaps most importantly, use social media sparingly, like any other addictive, toxic substance, and invest in more real-life community building conversations. Listen to real people, real stories, and real opinions, and build from there.


Jeanna Matthews is a professor of computer science at Clarkson University. This article is republished from under a Creative Commons license. Read the .

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