Bernie's Bots: How Fake Twitter Accounts Manipulate Public Perception
The percentage above represents a wide range of interpretations, depending on the context. If one were to receive a 31% on his or her exam, the reaction to this number would be an obvious disappointment. If one were to receive a 31% tip as a server, then he or she would most likely be elated. That same percentage also elicits a wide range of emotions in the sporting world as well. A professional basketball player who shoots 31% is most likely not happy with his performance while a professional baseball player who gets a hit 31% of the time is most like quite proud of the work he is doing. The point of these comparisons is that a certain numerical percentage can tell us a lot about a person based on how he or she performs, but, more importantly, how he or she chooses to respond to that percentage moving forward.
Senator Bernie Sanders is currently at 31%.
He is at 31% in terms of the number of actual human beings that follow his Twiter account of the more than 8 million who claim to do so, this according to a routine Twitter audit of the senator's verified account. That means that 69%, or roughly 4.9 million of Sanders' followers are not living, breathing human beings. In fact, you can tell that they are bots simply by going to Sanders' Twitter profile where the overwhelming majority of his recent followers have not Tweeted a single time since joining this month. In addition, several are following anywhere from 40 to 180 people but do not have any followers themselves, a key characteristic of being a Twitter bot. Of the people these bots follow, there tends to be a pattern in that they will follow a handful of politicians, a handful of news organizations, and a handful of celebrities. Hardly ever do they follow an Average Joe because they want to be able to maximize their retweets to the largest audiences possible.
The practice of using Twitter bots to influence political debate is something that we are just now beginning to understand. In August, a Twitter user and data scientist going by the name of Conspirator Norteno created a thread that was shared by David Frum of The Atlantic, which described a Twitter user allegedly based in the UK who had amassed over 100,000 followers. This user was not only tweeting pro-Brexit and anti-Hillary articles but he was also posting during the hours of 8 AM to 8 PM...in Russia. A segment on the LBC's Digital Radio a week later further discussed this user and the influence that this user could have simply by having sub-bots retweet their original statement. In a not-so-subtle nod to Russia itself, the fake twitter user was essentially described as a "Russian doll" in that there existed layers upon layers of fellow users, making it extremely difficult to tell where the original user's influence terminated, if it did so at all. One key characteristic of all these bots, and one shared by many Bernie Sanders followers, was the use of 8 digits in the Twitter username thereby giving an obvious indicator that these accounts are fake.
The influence of Bernie's bots is a question the media has not been asking. Sure, it was briefly discussed in March when it was revealed that the Sanders campaign faced a 'tsunami' of fake news. But knowing that there are still 4.9 million fake followers for a presidential nominee should raise some serious red flags for anybody concerned about the autonomy and sovereignty of our election process. As has been pointed out, it is nearly impossible to determine where a bot's influence can end and 2016 had no shortage of fake news and misinformation being spread over social media. There can be no doubt that Bernie Sanders greatly benefitted from this information as it was Russia's clear intent to weaponize social media against the American public. Many of us who questioned Bernie's candidacy were immediately attacked on social media outlets by bots, often regurgitating the same talking points and failing to respond when presented with counter-arguments. Although many of us saw through these attacks, the truth is that millions of gullible Americans were exposed to these lies and misinformation without realizing just how badly they were being manipulated by a foreign adversary engaging in an unprecedented use of cyberwarfare.
And yet, we now know these bots exist. So the question becomes why hasn't Bernie Sanders simply ditched all his fake followers? There exist a number of free apps that have this capability. Why won't Bernie Sanders stop this cyberwarfare and simply go ahead and remove all the bots that follow him?
That, right now, is the most pressing question that Bernie Sanders needs to answer.
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