Mozilla IRL Episode 2 Explores Internet Bots

3 ways to spot fake Twitter accounts

Most website visitors aren’t human. They’re bots. Today, bots make up 52% of all web traffic. And these automated accounts have had serious, real world impact — from the 2016 election, to the FCC’s recent, controversial net neutrality vote.

In this week’s episode of IRL podcast, we explore the rise of political bot networks and how they’re warping and rewiring conversation online.

Of course, not all bots are bad. Automated accounts can remind us to take better care of ourselves.

They can make us laugh.

And they can force us to ask hard questions about the culture we’re creating.

But when bots are used as a tool to amplify political messaging, it gets weird and dangerous. More so, because most of us assume that we’d be able to tell the difference between a bot and a human on social media. Sometimes, it’s not so obvious. : /

Ben Nimmo, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, stopped by our podcast to share his guide to Twitter botspotting.

1. Bots post. A lot.
If you suspect an account might be a bot, the first and easiest thing you can do is check their Twitter activity. Go the the account’s profile page, and see how many tweets they’ve posted since their account was created. A human Twitter user might post 10-15 times a day. A bot account will post with high frequency, up to 2,000 times a day. That’s more than a tweet a minute, every minute, for 24 hours. Not even the worst human is capable of this.

2. Bots love anonymity.
Once you’re on the profile page, look at the account details. Is the handle a real human name, or does it just have a scramble of letters and numbers? Is the profile picture an image of a person, or is it a generic landscape? Is it an egg? In general, the less personal information the profile gives, the more likely the account is a bot.

3. Bots live to amplify.
One of the main roles of bots is to boost up the message of other bots. A typical bot will retweet and quote links, instead of creating original posts. Scan your suspected bot’s account. If it’s an endless stream of retweets, it’s behaving like a bot.

No single factor can reliably identify a bot. According to Nimmo, it’s the combination of these three indicators that’s most revealing. The most important thing is awareness. If you can identify a bot, you’re less likely to be influenced by it (or awkwardly retweet it). For more on how to spot bots out in the wild, check out DFR Lab’s handbook, here.

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8 comments on “3 ways to spot fake Twitter accounts”

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  1. Stanley Veer wrote on

    All bots (ALL!!!) should be banned for Internet. They contaminate human interactions.


    1. cg wrote on

      Absolutely agree.
      All bots should be banned for Internet and prosecuted


  2. Mark wrote on

    The information above seems to make it relatively easy to spot a bot. That leads me to wonder why isps and social media companies can’t automate the process to a higher degree.


  3. Cat Sullivan wrote on

    First, let me express a radical, old-school concept: Computers are tools. Software is a tool, and programs/applications (aka apps) are tools.

    Like any tool, bots can be useful or destructive. A hammer can be used to build a house or to bash someone’s head in. A bot can offer positive tips and reminders (like the regular health advice or safety tips I get from my insurance companies) or it can carry a message of greed (advertisements and scams), hate, or malicious attempts to influence people’s thoughts and opinions (political propaganda).

    Sadly, the real strength of bots lies in the lack of self esteem and independent thought in the average person. These traits are given lip service by our society, but in fact are suppressed from early childhood onward. If people were not so easily influenced by what other people think, by what’s “trending” or “most popular” then bots would be much less powerful.

    There is an old saying that goes something like “if you protect people from the consequences of their folly, what you get is a nation of fools.” I think perhaps we have proven it true.


  4. Gordon Everest wrote on

    In Firefox, does Mozilla do anything to combat bots or at least try to identify them as we browse the wwweb?


    1. Jarred Allen wrote on

      That’s not Firefox’s job, and I would argue that it shouldn’t be Firefox’s job. As a web browser, I want Firefox firstly and foremostly to show me the webpages that I request it to show me, and not try to tell me to not go to places because there are bots.

      The burden of combating bots should lie on the people who make those webpages.


  5. Tom Rosedale wrote on

    The internet is for humans to share.(period)
    Banning bots and prosecuting those people who
    put them on the internet is the way to go.
    Getting rid of that waste of bandwidth that the bots occupy
    would make things a lot faster and enjoyable for all of us “the people.”
    We have an army of gamers (in the millions) all over the world.
    What if we ask them to hunt bots in a real time online game that’s
    beneficial for us all.(whats in it for them? better speed,frame rates,other carrots, provided by ISP’s
    Some tech savvy entrepreneur with some clout/money/or uni behind them to develop
    a game as such.
    There is a gluttony of garbage out on the net and it must be cleaned up.
    Ask your self if you want people or machines running the w.w.w.


  6. D.H. Fabian wrote on

    Clearly, this article is a product of bots. Take it one step further, and identify them as Russian bots. Because.


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