Getting To The BOTtom Of It All

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Bot armies can be most frustrating when interacting with Twitter.

Recently there have been accusations Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) & other Liberal Party MPs have been utilising small spam bot armies to game twitters ranking & trending system for their own benefit. I too jumped on that bandwagon, incorrectly tweeting that there were “damning revelations” that Hunt was buying followers & retweets. For this, I do apologise to Greg Hunt, & I figured the best I could do was write this article.

I sought clarification from Greg Hunt & received a prompt reply denying that he had engaged spammers to prop up tweets & his follower numbers. To be honest, I believe him. In the not too distant past, Mark Colvin (@Colvinius) has been the subject of a 20 000 spam follower “attack” of sorts, which not only was annoying, created uncertainty about Mark’s ethics, but cost Mark money to deal with.

So why does this happen? If Hunt is to be believed, which I do, neither Hunt or his office engaged spam bot sellers, which rules out the first reason this has happened: personal gain. The second reason you may be followed by a large number of spammers is someone, without your consent, has engaged spam bot sellers to prop your tweets & followers up, as Asher Moses put it, to increase the “virality” of a post. The last reason, as with Mark Colvin’s example, is to discredit the person whom the bots attach themselves.

Now that we have the basics covered, I’ll look a bit more into why these bots may have attached themselves to Greg Hunt’s account.

If Hunt did engage spam bot sellers to prop up his followers & tweets, the immediate effect would be minimal, however, over time social media analytics like Klout, Kred & PeerIndex would start to show a higher level of influence for Hunt. This may not seem relevant, however it would give weight to opinions posited by Hunt in the social media sphere. In the long term it would ensure that tweets from Hunt would feature as top tweets & trend a lot more often. Knowing how the trend systems work on twitter, gaming them is quite easy given a bot army at your disposal.

If it was an outside activist group (such as Menzies House, who I refuse to link to) organising the spam bot sellers, the outcome is the same as Hunt directly engaging said spammers. It’s all about gaming the system & increasing influence of Hunt on social media. There are definitely those in activist groups that support the Liberal party who are unethical enough to attempt something like this, & far enough removed for the fallout not to tarnish Hunt.

The final reason for doing this, to discredit Hunt, would make this a poor attempt. The bot army was small enough to not be noticed at all over the last month. If anything, this option is the least likely as there is only, according to Hunt, “one out of 1000 tweets has been retweeted widely using what I now know to be called a tweet bot”.

I, personally, think the bigger story here is that many of the spam bots aren’t just retweeting & following Greg Hunt, but many of the members of climate denial, anti-ALP/Green trolls that frequent #auspol. These bots do, from time to time, retweet random tweets with trending hashtags, however there seems to be a constant stream of LNP hate speech troll tweets being retweeted by these bots. Many of the people being retweeted have been using the #auspol hashtag, & trolling it, since after the 2010 election. The language has changed from “election now” to patently false & defamatory speech.

Botnets are used for many forms of spam: email, twitter, facebook, etc.

Botnets are used for many forms of spam: email, twitter, facebook, etc.

While I’m no anti-troll campaigner, it does become frustrating when both trolls & their spam bot armies take over a hashtag. Real information & news reports are relegated to the bottom of the pile, so to speak, & hateful propaganda becomes featured posts. If these activist groups are engaging in spammers to further their cause, it removes any legitimacy they may have had in the past.

I accept Greg Hunt’s explanation of what has happened & remind people of influence to keep their twitter accounts clear of spammers, not just so you don’t look like you’re padding your followers/retweets, but also as part of the constant fight against spamming that requires a collective effort from EVERYONE with a twitter account.

The end result of all this will never be finding out who did what, we are, after all, talking about 3rd parties engaging with criminal organisations to influence social media. At best we can hope to fire a warning shot across politicians & activist groups’ bows not to attempt this kind of political campaigning. What we don’t want happening is it getting to the level of Newt Gingrich back in 2011.

There will always be those who wish to influence the many by using nefarious methods.

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To keep the record straight, I’d like to thank @geeksrulz & the many anonymous sources who’ve helped me with this post. You can read @geeksrulz Storify investigation here: The Desperation of a Liberal MP? The Russian spambots.

Here’s the email Greg Hunt replied with when I requested information:

Dear Kieran,

Many thanks for your message.

Actually we have seen the report that one out of 1000 tweets has been retweeted widely using what I now know to be called a tweet bot. I want to reaffirm that as far as we are aware of over 1000 tweets, one has been subject to an unknown source retweeting from overseas accounts. We were not aware of this until we read this today.

Unfortunately we have no way of knowing by whom, why or under what circumstances.

In terms of your other questions:

    • I take responsibility for my account. However the office does screen for and reject obvious fake users or trolls.
    • If you could identify any fake accounts and verify this we will immediately take action to have them deleted from the followers list. Of course the nature of twitter is that it is difficult to identify users.
    • No I have never paid for retweeting.
    • No I do not have any links to MenziesHouse.

I would particularly note that of the over 1000 tweets I have issued, there has been just one that has been subject to a significant retweeting from some overseas source. This has occurred without my knowledge, control or consent. If you are writing I would assume that you would point out this fundamental point that such retweeting has only happened to 1 of 1000+ tweets.

Respectfully,

Greg Hunt

Greg has responded to my article, cheers:

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Getting To The BOTtom Of It All by Sortius is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
  • http://gravatar.com/dafid1 dafid1d

    As one who has been very critical of Hunt, I am happy to accept his word on the tweets, however as far as he has no connection with Menzies House. Pull the other one spinner

  • jeremy

    Thank you. This makes enormous sense and I too believe Greg Hunt – it seemed likely he wouldn’t be responsible for the bots.

    As someone who only fairly recently started to engage in Twitter I first followed the #auspol hashtag, until it became so full of LaborDirt and other spammers I gave it up, as by then I followed enough people to have enough to read anyway.

    There was a mass of typical other spammers – to links which I didn’t investigate. I checked the #uspol tag and each time that was free of the spam.

    At one time there was a whole set of spammers who as in these examples all retweeted the same set of retweets. I don’t recall that they were all LNP supportive and think they were fairly random, maybe even links but all started with the same tweet about AWU/Julia Gillard.

    This seems like a more successful stage, perhaps being refined?

    Maybe there’s wisdom I can’t see, but it seems to me that these are set up by someone with technical expertise but not much actual understanding of the effects in social media sites like Twitter. LaborDirt is often counter-productive and tweets articles which show LNP in a foolish light and it seems pointless to be posting several times a minute through the night when there’s nobody there except for other bots, all of them apparently LNP. They flood one another out.

    I’ve reported LaborDirt numerous times but no action has ever been taken, despite the fact it’s in obvious breach of TOS. Yet others seem to be suspended for far less over far shorter periods. I do question this.

    The pace picks up whenever there’s something unfavourable to LNP and/or partiicularly favourable to ALP so they seem to be bots with a fair amount of actual intervention. I’ve even interacted with one or two and received replies when they tweeted links to articles they obviously hadn’t read.

    Perhaps it’s a plot to drive people away from #auspol, as it has me. That just basically means I only read people I agree with, so that would be pointless. Perhaps it’s because other than Malcolm Turnbull, the LNP politicians don’t appear to handle it very well. They certainly don’t seem to trust their own supporters – perhaps why I’m always reading that Twitter is ‘leftie’.

    Thanks for all your investigations and reporting.