The Dark Side of Twitter

By Robert Griffith

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

By the time Enrique Peña Nieto is inaugurated as Mexico’s next president, the Twitter-bot techniques that marred the campaigning leading up to that country’s July 1 election will no doubt have spread to some other part of the globe. What country will next experience the dark side of Twitter?

With 465 million accounts—just under a quarter of them in the US—and 175 million Tweets a day, Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms. Millions of fans follow Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but the human participants are sometimes crowded out by Twitter-bots—zombie accounts that send junk Tweets. And the zombies often have a political agenda.

Twitter-bots have haunted political activists from Morocco to Iran and particularly in Syria. Researchers following the #Syria hash-tag noticed two trends. First were “Twitter eggs,” mostly image-less Twitter accounts that verbally abused and threatened anyone tweeting in favor of the protests or criticizing the Bashar al-Assad regime. Second were spam-generating accounts that flooded the #Syria hash-tag with Tweets about various inane topics and threats against a long list of individuals who expressed support for the protests. #Syria and a few other hash-tags were inundated so that they became meaningless.

The Syrian Twitter-bots were followed in Russia and China. Twitter tactics similar to those employed in Syria were used to drown outanti-Putin protests in Russia. They where also used to drown out Free Tibet sentiments around the world. Junk Tweets hampered activists who were distributing vital information, limiting their effectiveness. Spam such as “Putin is my president” prevented researchers from monitoring developments.

Most recently, Twitter-bots zappedspam messages around Mexico during that country’s presidential and congressional election campaigns. Young, educated, urban and technologically savvy voters make up a quarter of the Mexican population. These voters are disproportionately political independents, forcing the main candidates to use social media effectively to compete for their support.

Apparently, that partly meant resorting to Twitter-bots. In his June 21 article entitledTwitter Mischief Plagues Mexico’s Election in Technology Review, Mike Orcutt writes, “The top contenders in Mexico’s presidential campaigns are engaged in a Twitter spam war, with armies of bots programmed to cast aspersions on opposing candidates and disrupt their social-media efforts.” Another objective of Twitter-bots is to make a topic appear so popular that it becomes atrending topic on twitter.

“For its part,” Orcutt continues, “Twitter clearly states that spamming is against the rules, citing 20 different examples of behavior it considers to be spamming.” However, such pronouncements do not seem to be having much effect. Consequently, Twitter is pursuing some of the top spammers in US courts.

Looking to the future, Orcutt writes, “This large-scale political spamming could foreshadow online antics that campaigners may increasingly resort to in other countries.”

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