Don’t Be Fooled: How to Spot a Russian Bot on Social Media
Whatsapp Pinterest
Advertisement

How sure are you that the person you’re passionately “debating” with online is a real, breathing person? How do you know whether they’re just another impassioned supporter of whatever topic and not someone with government (or other) backing?

Spotting Russian bots or paid-for shills is no easy task. It is, however, becoming increasingly important as accusations of nation-states meddling in other’s affairs continue to swirl. Can you spot them? Here’s what you need to know.

Bots vs. Shills

Let’s start by differentiating bots and shills.

Bot: A bot is a fake social media account under the control of an organization or government seeking to influence the online community. For instance, a Twitter bot set to retweet certain hashtags and phrases in such volumes that it amplifies the specific topic. Another example is Reddit bots downvoting views disagreeing with the bot controller opinion (while upvoting those that do agree). Bots require volume for success on certain platforms, while at other times only a few can begin to shape the direction of a conversation.

Shill: A shill is different. Shills are real people actively engaging in the shaping of online (in this instance) discussion and opinion—while receiving payment in exchange for their presence. Shills promote companies, governments, public figures, and much more, for personal profit, essentially engaging in propaganda.

Depending on the organization or government, shills can work in conjunction with large bot networks to create intense vocal online movements. And while the combined efforts of shills and bots shape online opinion, these efforts are increasingly affecting more than just social media users.

The practice is also known as astroturfing, whereby organizations and governments curate the conversation through “regular” members of the public.

Russian Bots and Shills

Russian bots and shills dominated talk in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election. Commentators and critics dedicated a huge amount of airtime and column inches discussing the role of Russian-backed bots and shills in influencing the discussion around certain topics.

In fact, Robert Mueller, the special counsel who’s investigating interference in the presidential election, recently indicted 13 US-based Russians as part of the suspected Russian-backed propaganda machine, Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The allegations of influence are far-reaching. They range from simply creating American sounding identities online, to stealing the identities of US citizens, to baiting minority activists and so-called “social justice warriors,” to creating Instagram groups such as “Woke Blacks” to influence minority voting efforts. And there are numerous other examples, too.

Social media networks are one the primary tools of influence. The platforms know there is a problem, too. In January 2018, Twitter said it was emailing 677,775 people in the US who tweeted IRA content. At the same time as the apology, Twitter is purging bot accounts, prompting the #twitterlockout hashtag to trend amongst predominantly conservative-leaning Twitter users.

And for all the cries of foul play and unfair targeting, there is evidence that “conservatives retweeted Russian trolls about 31 times more often than liberals and produced 36x more Tweets.”

Furthermore, Twitter maintains their bot purge is “apolitical” and that they enforce sitewide rules “without political bias.”

That’s not to say bots, shills, and astroturfing is the sole remit of conservative figures.

As far back as 2007, campaign staffers for Clinton were anonymously boosting pro-Hilary sites, while during the 2016 presidential debates, the Clinton campaign was the subject of hundreds of thousands of automated bot tweets (though significantly fewer than Donald Trump).

Not All Bots

Twitter and other social media platforms aren’t plagued by bots, as some publications would have you believe. We can break down Twitter bot hashtag interaction to understand how their backers seek to influence conversation.

The Computational Propaganda Project (CCP), sponsored by Oxford University, closely examines these interactions. The table below illustrates [PDF] the difference in automation between interactions with pro-Trump or pro-Hilary hashtags, as well as the overall percentage of non-automated tweets, between November 1 and November 9, 2016:

Russian bots?

CCP define high automation as “accounts that post at least 50 times a day” using at least one of the election specific hashtags. The study considers anything below that threshold low automation—in other words, a real person. The table shows a much higher percentage of low level automation, indicating much higher numbers of regular users are interacting.

The study does note that some human users are inevitably swept into the high automation bracket. It also notes that accounts demonstrating high automation also very rarely use terms from the Mixed Hashtag Cluster bracket (bar Trump-Clinton combinations due to sheer retweet volume).

We will never truly know the full picture of how many bots are working on any given social media platform. Recent research estimates [PDF] that automated bots make up nearly 15 percent of all Twitter users, putting the total well over 40 million individual bot accounts.

Da’wah Center Protest

A prime example of direct Russian influence is the 2016 Houston Da’wah Center protest.

Facebook group “Heart of Texas” posted an advert looking for sympathizers to attend a protest “to stop the Islamification of Texas.” The protest was set for midday on May 21, meeting at the Da’wah Center. At the same time, another group—the so-called “United Muslims of America”—were organizing a counter-protest at the same time and place.

The two groups met at the center and, predictably, “interactions between the two groups eventually escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks.”

At the time, neither set of protesters realized their respective group wasn’t real. That is to say; the groups were the construct of a Russian-backed “troll farm” that exists solely to manipulate political, racial, and religious tension in the US.

How to Spot a Bot on Social Media

Recognizing bots and shills on social media isn’t always easy. Why? Because otherwise more people would realize what was going on.

Don’t get me wrong; we all interact with bots and shills, it is the very nature of social media in 2018. Operatives receive thousands of dollars a month to subtly (and sometimes more brazenly) influence conversation.

There are, however, some bot-spotting tips to bear in mind:

  1. The account only reposts/retweets, never making posts of its own, sending the same response to other people.
  2. Accounts that only repost/retweet comments made by multiple other similar accounts (some of whom are also likely bots).
  3. Some accounts rapidly (likely automatically) post in response to “trigger” topics faster than humanly possible.
  4. Human cycles. Real people tend to post in bursts, covering different topics, as well as have recognizable downtime for day/night cycles.
  5. Default profile pictures. For instance, a Facebook profile with the image of a man or woman, or a Twitter profile with the default egg picture.
  6. Profiles that are prolific around major events—elections, scandals, terrorist attacks—but remain dormant at other times. The upcoming 2018 mid-term elections will see swathes of bot accounts reactivating.

Other things to look out for are automatic systemic downvotes on sites like Reddit. Bots pick up on the title of a submission and immediately begin downvoting comments that disagree with their programming. (Downvoting hides comments as well as their responses from other users, and is an easy way of obstructing dissenting views How Upvote Systems Have Damaged Online Communities How Upvote Systems Have Damaged Online Communities Read More .)

How to Spot a Shill on Social Media

Spotting paid-shills is more difficult as the onus is on the account maintaining the appearance of a regular social media user. Posts promoting a certain topic or shaping the online conversation might come among regular mundane discussion points to not create suspicion.

Some common tactics include:

  • Changing the narrative of a hot topic toward something that promotes the agenda of whoever paid for the shill
  • Consistently attacking something that wasn’t part of the initial conversation (sometimes called “whataboutism,” where a shill argues using terms such as “but what about when X did Y”)

Another spotting tactic is the human cycle. Regular people have to sleep, eat, drink, and so on. If a single account is managing to post on a single agenda continuously for 24-hour periods, something is likely afoot.

But “really good” shills work hard. Instead of merely attacking and contradicting opinion and attempting to shape the discussion, they’ll slowly befriend and infiltrate a group before setting to work.

Can You Stop the Russian Bots?

Unfortunately, other than reporting suspicious accounts, there is little direct action to take against shill or bot accounts. As they say, don’t feed the trolls.

The 2018 mid-term elections are firmly on the horizon now (check the political bias of any site in the run up Check the Political Bias of Any Media Site in This Massive Database Check the Political Bias of Any Media Site in This Massive Database Every media site has a political bias, but sometimes it isn't easy to see just how biased they are. This database tracks and analyzes them for your convenience. Read More ). While the impact of shill and bot accounts is perhaps larger than ever, you now know more about how to spot certain types of behavior.

Image Credit: raptorcaptor/Depositphotos

Explore more about: Politics, Social Media Bots.

Enjoyed this article? Stay informed by joining our newsletter!

Enter your Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. John Smith
    April 22, 2018 at 11:30 am

    Another article of the hysteria of nothing. Yes you are reading that right NOTHING.
    Russians and other countries have always and will always try to influence online and offline.
    If you were an adult during the cold war, then the 80s and the early 90s, you would have seen that, but not on social media, since they did not exist back then.
    So stop this nonsense already. Some people are not unable to handle simple disagreements online and report the person who said something they disagree with as a "Russian troll" or "Russian bot", and you need to understand by such fear mongering, you are doing exactly what any foreign power hostile to the US would want.
    Not to mention, this whole "Russsian! Russiaaaaa!!" stuff is a tin foil hat stuff.

    • dragonmouth
      June 28, 2018 at 12:30 pm

      Sen. Joe McCarthy has risen from the grave. If you're not with us, you MUST be a Russian shill/bot.

      I wonder how many innocent lives are destroyed this time by innuendo, spinning of circumstantial evidence or intentionally misinterpreting the facts?

    • Dan
      July 17, 2018 at 5:04 pm

      John Smith is obviously a shill.

      • John Smith
        July 17, 2018 at 6:55 pm

        Took you 7 months to come up with such a lame response?
        So everyone pointing out the stupidity is either a "Russian troll", or a "a shill"?
        A shill for whom, and for what? Other than what the voices in your head telling you, nothing.
        Some of us look past the narrative and prefer real world data. Something you are obviously incapable of, and you prefer personal attacks.

  2. ACB23
    March 20, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    STOP WITH THAT PROPAGANDA NOW! There could also be a Chinese, or American bot either. I'm nor American nor Russian but I don't really think why would you like to involve all that now. Remember, anybody can set up TOR or VPN to get Russian IP. STOP WITH THAT WITCH HUNTS FROM 15TH CENTURY. I really, really thought that these so called "witch hunts" are history now, but looks like we're still miles away from the solution. And the worst, YOU! are taking part at that instead of trying to make peace and help people stop arguing for the things that are past! Look towards the future, don't stay in the past.

    • Elizabeth
      March 21, 2018 at 11:02 am

      But this is not propaganda or a witch hunt. 'Witch hunts' are wrongful persecutions of innocent people. Russia really DOES employ people to fraudulently pose online as American, British, etc people, using false names, with the specific intention of moving public debate in Russia's favour. I find this practice very annoying and although I definitely would like to 'give peace a chance' with everyone in the world that doesn't mean I'm going to play into the hands of people who are being paid by their governments to try and manipulate our beliefs.
      I've come across these fakes multiple times in comments threads in online newspapers. They often adopt American names and swear blind they're 'just an ordinary American citizen' but their English tends to be stilted, rather like yours, and their protestations of political neutrality - rather like yours - just come across as too much/ too fake, and they tend to collapse under direct questioning.
      Once when I persisted in challenging one of these fraudsters, this supposed all-American citizen suddenly swore at me in Russian and disappeared offline. That was fun, but I really wish you guys would disappear or just be honest about who you are and who exactly is paying you to make all these impassioned pleas for us to be nicer to and more trusting of Russia.

      • ACB23
        March 21, 2018 at 9:25 pm

        Hello,
        First, I agree that there are Russian bots and that they're very annoying but there are American bots too! Yes, and also Chinese ones. They *always* mess up with our forums, websites and all such stuff. I'm tired of having 50 emails per day because of them. But you just can't assume that someone is a bot if his English is bad and he has an American name. Don't get me wrong, just saying, every country has good and bad guys.

        All they want to do is to make you scared. Even if you don't think so. And looks like they're pretty successful at that (unfortunately).
        About 30 years ago, in my country there was huge Serbian impact on lives of Yugoslavian people. Serbs were spying everywhere. They were paid by the communist party to spy on phone calls. Basically, if you said anything against the government, they came and killed you. I had a friend who was military colonel. Someday, he was sent to a special mission to Belgrade but he never came back alive. Weeks later, we got a letter that he's died because of a heart infarct. Now you can just imagine what actually happened... People were frightened and the government had the power to manage their lifes. This was the key to their success. Nowadays, times has changed but big superpowers are doind the same. People are not robots which behavior can be altered in a few seconds, but it could be done over the time. So again, don't let these bots to waste your time. Just ignore them. It's hard, but it'll be over some day.

        • Dan
          July 17, 2018 at 5:08 pm

          You're definitely a shill. You seem desperate to suggest Russia isn't using bots successfully. Fake.

    • Gavin Phillips
      March 21, 2018 at 11:42 am

      It isn't a witch hunt if objectively proven to be true. Do you think Cambridge Analytica admitting to targeting US citizens is also a witch hunt? It is part of the same problem.

      People have the right to know if their online experience is being warped, or worse, they are being served an entirely different version of events to push an agenda. In that, we are looking towards the future, because the we can only learn from the past.

      • dragonmouth
        June 28, 2018 at 1:04 pm

        "It isn't a witch hunt if objectively proven to be true."
        Yes, the Russians tried to influence American voters. So did many other groups but nobody wants to hear or admit that. It does not fit the witch hunt agenda. Trying to connect Trump and anybody connected with his election campaign to the Russians is the witch hunt. Of all the people convicted based on the findings of Robert Mueller, none were proven to actually have collaborated with the Russians. All the convictions were for crimes in no way connected to "voter influencing". They were for money laundering, lying to the police and/or Mueller, misusing campaign funds, etc. It looks like Mueller's position is that if these people were guilty of those crimes, they MUST be guilty of conspiring with the Russians to fix the election against Hillary.

        "Cambridge Analytica admitting to targeting US citizens"
        Are they the only ones targeting US citizens? Every advertising agency and every public relations firm is targeting the same citizens to influence them to do this or that. In 2008 and 2012, the Democrats used Cambridge Analytica to influence US citizens to vote for Obama.

        "People have the right to know if their online experience is being warped"
        Are you so naive that you believe only the Russians are "warping" our online experience?! Any and all groups (Democrats, Republicans, LGBQT, vegans, anti-abortion, Planned Parenthood, pro and anti immigration, etc) with an agenda or an axe to grind, is trying very hard to "warp" our online experience.

    • Dan
      July 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm

      ACB23 uses English like a foreigner. Probably a Russian shill.

      • John Smith
        July 17, 2018 at 6:59 pm

        Have you managed to contribute anything to the discussion other than attacking everyone who question this new McCarthyism as "Russian shill"?
        Your English is not good either,
        "uses English"
        Does not make sense. and sounds like what a non native-English speaking person would say. Your own argument shows you are " Probably a Russian shill", so you should be treated as such.
        Enjoy.

  3. Leah
    March 20, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    Now it's become the new troll. "If I don't like what you have to say you must be a bot." I was called a bot yesterday. I roll my eyes.

    • Gavin Phillips
      March 21, 2018 at 11:33 am

      Yeah, it is really easy to discredit or undermine the argument when you can just call someone a shill.

  4. Vic
    March 14, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
    How to find a Russian bot?
    Did Germans kill 6 million Jew?

    • Gavin Phillips
      March 14, 2018 at 3:52 pm

      I'm sorry, I don't catch your drift.

  5. csm2
    March 13, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    All this discussion of bots and shills influencing public opinion is an exercise in hypocrisy. If we do not like or agree with the information being disseminated, we call the sources bots and shills. However, if the sources push an agenda that we agree with, we hail them as objective reporters of facts.

    Why do we get all hot and bothered and instigate special counsel investigations because allegedly the Russians "influenced" our elections when the Democrats, Republicans and other special interest groups are trying to also influence our elections? Mud slinging, innuendo, fake news, negative ads are, and have been, standard operating procedure in all elections going back to the 1790s, long before the Russians allegedly got involved. Shouldn't a special counsel or three be assigned to investigate our political parties' attempt to influence the elections?!

    When social media sites (FB, Twitter, etc) hire people to propagate ideas espoused by the site owners, these people are called "influencers" or " opinion shapers". When the opinion shaping and idea spreading originates from outside social media, they are called "shills" or "trolls". Why? They are all doing the same job, trying to influence us.

    • Nota Bot
      March 14, 2018 at 12:33 pm

      That's just what a shill or bot would say...

      • John Smith
        July 17, 2018 at 7:01 pm

        Yeah "Nota Bot" now posting as "Dan" screaming "you are a shill" at everyone.

    • Gavin Phillips
      March 14, 2018 at 4:04 pm

      I see your point, but I don't think it is hypocritical. There are, objectively, shills paid for by the Russian government that seek to influence policy and public opinion in the US and Europe. I'm not as blind as to believe that the US and various EU governments aren't doing the same, though.

      However, I do agree that it is easy to focus the attention on a "foreign devil" to deflect from the issues closer to home. That has always been the way. It seems people don't mind if their government spreads misinformation to them... but a foreign government? How very dare they!

      Thanks for the comment!