Twitter Has a Serious Problem—And It’s Actually a Bigger Deal Than People Realize – AJ VICENS APR. 14, 2017 6:00 AM

Bots can undermine democracy.

On March 30, during the first Senate intelligence committee hearing on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, London-based cybersecurity expert Thomas Rid described how several groups became “unwitting agents” of Russian efforts to influence the American presidential election. One was WikiLeaks, which has been accused by the US government of helping the Russian government when it published thousands of emails related to the Clinton campaign. Journalists who “aggressively covered the political leaks while neglecting or ignoring their provenance” were another group.

And so was Twitter, Rid said, because of the “fully automated bots as well as semi-automated spam and trolling accounts [that] make up a sizeable part of Twitter’s active user base.”

In a January 6 report, the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency alleged that the Russian government undertook a wide-ranging effort to influence the 2016 election in an attempt to “undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” and that part of that effort included “paid social media users or ‘trolls.'” Twitter won’t reveal how many automated bots, semi-automated spam, and trolling accounts are part of its approximately 313 million monthly active users. But the site provides a perfect platform for deploying what are known as “active measures,” Russian methods of information warfare Rid described as designed for “easy exploitation—high impact.”

But what can Twitter do about them?

Anybody with technical know-how can deploy or hire Twitter bots, an army of automated or semi-automated Twitter accounts that push a particular message at a much faster pace than any individual user could. One South American hacker told Bloomberg in March 2016 how he used Twitter bots in an attempt to influence an election in Mexico. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed published an interview with a Utah-based software developer who created his own army of Trump-supporting bots during this last election. News organizations have also used bots to automatically push out certain news items or, in one case, highlight every time the New York Times uses an anonymous source.

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