04.14.11

Can One Researcher & a Lot of Bots Manipulate Social Movements on Twitter?

Twitter was concerned a boon for protesters in Iran and Egypt who used the social networking service to communicate. We have a tendency to presume that the movement was widespread — that all protestors were using digital services equally.  Of course, that was not quite the case and researchers at the Web Ecology Project asked a simple question. Can you game social movement using bots, instead of humans:

Can one person controlling an identity, or a group of identities, really shape social architecture? Actually, yes. The Web Ecology Project’s analysis of 2009’s post-election protests in Iran revealed that only a handful of people accounted for most of the Twitter activity there. The attempt to steer large social groups toward a particular behavior or cause has long been the province of lobbyists, whose “astroturfing” seeks to camouflage their campaigns as genuine grassroots efforts, and company employees who pose on Internet message boards as unbiased consumers to tout their products. But social bots introduce new scale: they run off a server at practically no cost, and can reach thousands of people. The details that people reveal about their lives, in freely searchable tweets and blogs, offer bots a trove of personal information to work with. “The data coming off social networks allows for more-targeted social ‘hacks’ than ever before,” says Tim Hwang, the director emeritus of the Web Ecology Project. And these hacks use “not just your interests, but your behavior.”

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