Social Media 101: How To Spot Russian Trolls and Bots on Twitter

I’ve worked with words professionally for half my life, which has trained me to look for meaning in patterns and contradictions. This makes me pretty good at identifying Twitter bots, even though I’m not a programmer.  (The same goes for Manny Schewitz, who specializes in identifying and killing fake Facebook accounts.) But anyone can do it if they know what to look for and take the time to actually look.

Of course you can always use bot detection software, but maybe you’d rather have the ability to identify bots on your own, in real time.

If you’re one of these people, but you’re not sure where to start, here’s a checklist of basic questions to ask yourself before you interact with potential bots. The more of these questions you answer “yes” to, the more likely that you’re dealing with a bot, but even just one “yes” can be significant.

1. First, the easy and obvious question: Is there an empty space where the profile pic should be? Most real users want to post a pic because it’s a way to draw followers to their profile and telegraph what they care about to the rest of the world.

Take, for example, Trump’s @realDonaldTrump account. His profile pic isn’t a picture of Barron (would he even recognize him?), the First Mannequin, or The Constitution he wipes his ass with every day while he tweets on the toilet. No, it’s a picture of his own face, squinting into the distance, thinking of Big Macs. And his cover photo is of him posing with the Parkland Florida police, grinning idiotically and giving a thumbs-up like he’s at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or it’s his first day as a human and he’s not sure how to respond to a tragedy.

But bots aren’t real people.  They exist solely to sow division, make causes or individuals appear more popular than they really are, and spread misinformation — all of which  can be achieved by a bot developer without the added step of posting a profile pic.

Knowing how important profile pics are to real people,  however, you should automatically be suspicious of any user who doesn’t have one. This is not to say that bots never have profile pics and real users always do, but if you want to simplify your life, don’t interact with anyone who doesn’t have one, and block them when they follow you.  Easy.

2. Is there a random sequence of numbers in the username? Most of us try to pick usernames that say something about our identities and will keep trying until we get one we want. Sometimes those usernames might include birth years, like @Stormy1979, though bot developers have caught on to this. And sometimes they include numbers that are a kind of code, like @PenceInCloset69 or @SteveKing1488. But a user with a name like @Deplorable89930 is obviously a bot.

It just makes sense to assume that a bot developer, potentially in charge of deploying dozens of bots, is far more likely to settle for a random number combination than a real user who is personally invested in social media.

And if a user has no profile pic and a username with a random sequence of numbers? Block that bitch.

3. Is the account new? Brand new accounts (typified by low numbers of both followers and following) are likely to be bots, and can be often be identified by 1) a low ratio of original tweets to retweets and likes; and 2) a high ratio of following to followers – which indicates mistrust on the part of users who come into contact with the bot.

A high ratio of followers to following, on the other hand, often indicates a real-life narcissistic dick with no intellectual curiosity.  For example, @realDonaldTrump has 47.7M followers, but only follows forty-five.

When you encounter a user who is trying to interact with or follow you, take a moment to check how many times the user has tweeted and scroll down to see how far back the tweet history goes.  Scrolling also gives you an opportunity to observe statistics like tweets per hour, to see what kind of content the user is retweeting, and to note patterns over time.  Rely on your instincts here:  Sometimes you just know when something’s off.

4. Do the tweets make the user sound like a non-native speaker of English – despite the fact that the bio describes the user as an American patriot from someplace like Texas or Alabama? Years ago, when I used to tutor Russian immigrant students, I noticed they had difficulties with things like articles, tenses, and prepositions; and that their English, at least early on, sounded stiff. I’ll never forget one student, Stan, who was writing an essay about his family’s cabin in the woods. He was trying to convey the idea that solitude is peaceful, but the closest he could get by translating his Russian to English was: “It is good there where no us is.” I still have the piece of paper he wrote it on tacked to my office bulletin board.

Keep in mind that native speakers of English never forget to include articles like “a” and “the” (unless they’re purposely leaving them out to fit a character limit) in their writing, and seldom makes mistakes with tenses and prepositions. Beyond this, native speakers write with a certain rhythm and ease (despite technical errors) that ESL speakers can’t achieve until they’ve studied English for a few years.

Even our own idiot president, who misspells words, randomly capitalizes nouns, and is on a crusade to bring back useless exclamation points like they’re jobs in coal, sounds like a native speaker – albeit a fourth grade one.

5. Look at the user’s media posts. Do you see the same memes tweeted over and over: Bug-eyed, crazy-haired Hillary; Obama smoking a cigarette or chillin’ with terrorists; Trump’s head pasted onto a superhero’s body; or Biden “fondling” women? Or memes with spurious statistics about the tax plan, Uranium One, immigrant crime, and job growth? 

Most real people, even stupid and boring ones, aren’t this single-minded or faithful to any one iteration of an idea, especially in a world in which new media is being created every second.  But it makes a bot operator’s job of spreading propaganda easier if he/she can seize on a few popular memes and tweet them over and over in rapid succession.

Also, check to see whether the user has posted any personal pictures. Most bot operators don’t bother with this because it’s an extra, time-consuming step.  You can even do a reverse image search using TinEye, and very likely find that “Bobbie Sue from Arkansas” stole a college student in Florida’s entire unlocked Facebook photo collection.

And while you’re there, take a moment to scroll through the media posts to see if any of them violate Twitter’s rules for conduct (faster than scrolling through tweets), report the ones that do, and block the user.

Yep. Shut that garbage down like you’re muting someone in an episode of Black Mirror. 

6. Is the user writing in a language you can’t read? This seems like an obvious warning sign, but many liberals nonetheless feel obligated to follow these users back because they don’t want to seem xenophobic. But do you really want someone following you whose tweets you can’t understand?

Seriously, if you want to be in a one-way, exploitative relationship, just register as a Republican. Or be a democratic socialist voting in the 2016 Presidential election. (Just a little Progressive humor there. What else can you do when your candidate gets screwed over by the establishment? But I digress…)

Also, check to see if the user’s location is included in the bio. It’s a long shot, but some bot operators are so careless they forget to remove their actual location in Russia or elsewhere and substitute it for one in America.   And if the bio says “NYC, USA” instead of just “NYC,” you’re probably dealing with a bot. Real live Americans don’t generally feel the need to specify that NYC is part of the U.S.

7. Do you see lots of stupid emojis, all-caps sentences, exclamation points, and the words “MAGA” and “Christian” in the bio? This is either a bot or someone you want to stay away from anyway. MAGA + Christian = a special kind of extra-crazy cultist you don’t want to waste your time on.

So what if blocking people like this makes you look like you’re living in the sheltered, elitist bubble Republicans keep accusing you of inhabiting? Two-thirds of us are living in a bubble: a bubble of sanity, science, democracy, and multiculturalism. But it’s better than their bubble, and it’s on the right side of history. Own it.

Once you’ve ascertained that you’re dealing with a bot 1) call out the bot so that other people in the conversation know, 2) report the bot to Twitter as a user posting spam, and 3) block. Nothing will come of your report, of course, because Jack is making money hand over fist, but at least you’ve signaled to real people that an account is fake and you’ve prevented the bots and their stupid MAGA followers from bothering you and everyone else participating in the thread.

Bottom line: You just simply don’t want to interact with a bot. Bots can monitor your activities, put you on lists, retweet your tweets, and draw other bots to your profile.

Time and time again, I’ve watched people I follow on Twitter (some smart, some famous, some smart and famous) let themselves be drawn into extended arguments with bots that could easily have been avoided if they had taken the time to ask any of these questions. Personally, I have zero tolerance for willful ignorance, so I don’t waste time arguing with users who may or may not be bots or brainwashed cult members (of the Republican or centrist Dem persuasion).

At this point it simply doesn’t matter if you’re shutting real-life Trump fans out of your social media world. If they still support Trump, it’s time to write them off and focus your energies on things you can achieve using Twitter: spreading information, galvanizing voters, and supporting worthy candidates.

And for the sake of our democracy and our collective sanity, stop arguing with Twitter bots.  Learn how to identify, report, block, and move on.

Facebook Comments



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.