160726 Twitter bot NYMag

Correction time: It seems a number of tweets supporting Owen Smith’s campaign to become leader of the Labour Party were not from fake accounts and bots that were used to create a semblance of mass support that doesn’t actually exist.

Unfortunately for Mr Smith’s campaign, those tweets do not indicate an increase in support for his campaign either.

For an explanation, I’ll hand over to James Earley, who kindly offered to do so on Twitter yesterday:

“Twitter is awash with bots whose sole purpose is direct traffic to third party websites.

“To be effective, beat the spam filters, get into people’s news feeds etc., the bots are programmed to behave in a number of different ways.

“First, the profile itself is created using publicly available images and biographical data scraped from social media. If you reverse image search your facebook/twitter profile pictures don’t be surprised to find it being used by a number of fake accounts.

“Next, the bot has to get its links in front of real people and – importantly – make them look like genuine contributions to the discussion/news event/celebrity death etc. Otherwise, who will ever click on the links, right? No one will see them, and nobody will care to look for them.

“So, bots monitor any and all trending topics, scrape the public information generated by real people and organisations, and then repost it. It’s clunky and usually fairly obvious but you’ll still get fooled from time to time.

“Not all bot tweets will contain links – this is another tactic to beat spam filters. A bot will be programmed to mimic (very roughly) the patterns of activity typical of human users – a few comments, a few links, some pictures, the odd hastag. More sophisticated bots might only focus on hastags more likely to be used by certain demographics. This is useful if the creator of the bot has promised some client that for £x they can give them x real page visits from 24-35 year-old UK-based women.

“Take a look at this tweet:

160725 bots

“If you follow the link in the tweet it takes you to a website called ‘Post ABC’ which is self-described as being ‘created to help you handily get information about Posts ABC, read reviews and find the best merchants to do business with.’ Eh? Classic spammy nonsense.

“The bots posting pro-Owen Smith twitter content are not controlled by Owen’s campaign or supporters. They are just mindless algorithms.”

Journalists can’t be experts on everything. We must rely on the knowledge and integrity of our sources in many cases. It seems that, in this case, that knowledge failed them – and me.

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I duly proffer an apology to Owen Smith’s campaign supporters and withdraw the previous story.

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