"Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as 'bots,' to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton," the McClatchy news service reported, citing anonymous sources last month.
Last week, in testimony at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's meddling in the U.S. elections, Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent and senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, said influencing debate on social media isn't a role simply for bots.
Watts said the practice is a combination of automated bots and "humans that work in their psychological warfare groups" and command less-automated bots.
"That amplifies your appearance," Watts testified. "It games the social media system, such that such a high volume of content being pushed at the same time raises that into the Trends …The goal is to get that in the top of Twitter stream so mainstream media has to respond to that story. When mainstream media responds to it or looks at it without commenting on it, it takes over organically and you'll see it move over the internet like a virus."
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing that the disinformation being spread by Internet trolls and bots was designed to disparage Clinton and appeared to target key swing states in the weeks leading up to the November election.
Twitter bots are not new.
Sam Woolley, one of the researchers on the Oxford study, noted that bots are an important part of Twitter that have been used on the site since it was launched.
Normally, bots are used to send spam or tweets about a news story or event at a particular time of the day. They also can be used to be humorous. For instance, @Betelgeuse_3 sends automatic replies in response to tweets that include the phrase, "Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice," in reference to the movie Beetlejuice.
The difference is that bots are increasingly being used to flood discussions and sway opinion by appearing to represent massive groups of real-life users.
How bots could hurt a company
While bots were used to influence a presidential campaign, they also could be easily used to taint the image of a company or to plant phony news items about a corporate executive or enterprise.
"Malicious social media bots could feasibly be launched against any entity that has an online presence," Woolley told Computerworld. "They have long been used as a marketing tool for spreading information on companies' products … But there is no reason that social media bots couldn't be used to launch a campaign of disinformation or slander at a company."
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