Posted: 4 Min ReadElection Security

How to Spot a Twitter Bot

Twitter bots and botnets sparked much discussion in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. With the midterm elections rapidly approaching, we ask: What is a Twitter bot? How can you detect what’s real and what's not?

What is a social media bot?

Twitter bots are automated user accounts that interact with Twitter using an application programming interface (API). These bots can be programmed to perform tasks normally associated with human interaction, including follow users, favor tweets, direct message (DM) other users and, most importantly, they can tweet content, and retweet anything posted by a specific set of users or featuring a specific hashtag. Many are used to perform important functions, such as tweet about earthquakes in real-time and serve as part of a warning system. In the case of a campaign, however, political or otherwise, they are normally used to generate mass interest in specific content by spreading messages at a rate that isn’t possible with human users. A research paper produced by Indiana University in March 2017 found that 15 percent of all Twitter accounts were bots. 

A lone Twitter bot won’t facilitate the mass distribution of election material, “fake news”, or certain ideas. There are entire networks of bots that push content to the public and heavily follow each other to make the accounts appear legitimate. In a study carried out by Pew Research Center in April 2018, it was reported that approximately two-thirds of all tweeted links to popular websites were attributed to bots. A Knight Research Foundation study published in October 2018 identified a core network of heavily connected Twitter accounts that spread fake news links. Due to the high number of followers this core network has stories can spread quickly. 

Some bot administrators will employ stealth tactics to conceal the properties of a bot, so it is important to note that some bots may not be bots all of the time. The account may include human interaction, but function as a bot at other times, to appear as a regular human user account.

How do I detect a bot?

Now you know what a bot is, but the bigger question is would you know a bot if you encountered one? Depending on the level of stealth employed by a bot, some are easier to detect than others.

Some typical characteristics of bots on Twitter include:

  • Many Twitter bots have a relatively recent creation date.
  • Many bot user names contain numbers, which can indicate automatic name generation.
  • The account primarily retweets content, rather than tweeting original content.
  • The account’s tweet frequency is higher than a human user could feasibly achieve.
  • The account may have a high number of followers and also be following a lot of accounts; conversely, some bot accounts are identifiable because they send a lot of tweets but only have a few followers.
  • Many bots tweet the same content as other users at roughly the same time. 
  • Short replies to other tweets can also indicate automated behavior.
  • There is often no biography, or indeed a photo, associated with bot Twitter accounts.

Some applications have also been developed to detect bots and are available for public use. They include:

  • Botometer: an application developed by the Indiana University Network Science Institute (IUNI) and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research (CNetS).
  • Botcheck.me: a Chrome extension developed by two students at the University of California, Berkley. It specifically detects political propaganda bots.
  • Tweetbotornot: an open-source package for developers created by Michael Kearney, a professor at the Informatics Institute in the University of Missouri.

What is Twitter doing about this?

Twitter is taking steps to clean up the platform and rid it of fake, spammy, and bot accounts. It is taking several steps to do this:

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About the Author

Symantec Security Response

Security Response Team

Symantec's Security Response organization develops and deploys new security content to Symantec customers. Our team of global threat analysts operate 24x7 to track developments on the threat landscape and protect Symantec customers.

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