Nearly half of all Twitter posts and messages spreading conspiracies about the coronavirus and calling for an end to the lockdown are automated accounts known as bots, it has been claimed.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity estimate that between 45 and 60 per cent of accounts on Twitter promoting misinformation related to COVID-19 were bots.
The findings are a result of a study that analyzed some 200 million coronavirus-related tweets since January.
The analysts found that of the top 50 influential retweeters, 82 per cent are bots.
Of the top 1,000 retweeters, 62 per cent are bots.
The researchers looked for specific markers that usually identify bots.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say there is an orchestrated online campaign to spread disinformation related to COVID-19. The image above shows protesters demanding California lift stay-at-home orders during a demonstration in Sacramento on Saturday
Normally, bot accounts tweet and retweet several posts in a short time period. They also tend to copy and paste text from other tweets.
‘We’re seeing up to two times as much bot activity as we’d predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises and elections,’ said Kathleen Carley, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science.
Carley said that the COVID-19 pandemic has given people more time on their hands to create do-it-yourself bots.
She also said that there is a greater number of sophisticated groups that hire firms to run bot accounts.
‘Because it’s global, it’s being used by various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas,’ she said.
One of those agendas, according to Carley, is to sow dissension by escalating the online debate over lifting lockdown restrictions.
She said there has been an orchestrated effort to flood social media with demands to reopen the economy.
Carley said that researchers found at least 34 per cent of the tweets that fuel talk of reopening are bots.
When factoring in real-life human accounts that have bot assistants, the percentage of ‘reopen’ tweets is 66 per cent.
‘When we see a whole bunch of tweets at the same time or back to back, it’s like they’re timed,’ Carley said.
‘We also look for use of the same exact hashtag, or messaging that appears to be copied and pasted from one bot to the next.’
The Carnegie Mellon researchers found more than 100 false narratives and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 that they say were promoted by bots.
Among the conspiracy theories that have gained traction online are the claims that 5G wireless technology was responsible for spreading the virus and that Bill Gates engineered the COVID-19 pandemic so that he can develop a vaccine that will enable him to insert a microchip into every human to track their movements.
Another theory making the rounds online is that hospitals are using mannequins to fill up their emergency rooms rather than real human beings.
Twitter, meanwhile, says that it has removed false information related to COVID-19 from its platform. Twitter headquarters is seen above in San Francisco
‘Conspiracy theories increase polarization in groups. It’s what many misinformation campaigns aim to do,’ Carley said.
‘People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides.’
The more conspiracy theories are spread online, the more likely those who believe these theories could adopt extreme behavior and less rational thinking, according to Carley.
‘Increased polarization will have a variety of real-world consequences, and play out in things like voting behavior and hostility towards ethnic groups,’ Carley said.
Exactly who is behind these bot campaigns is hard to pin down, but Carley has a guess.
‘We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that,’ Carley said.
The United States government’s intelligence agencies believe Russia orchestrated a similar bot campaign during the 2016 presidential elections.
Twitter, meanwhile, says that it has removed false information related to COVID-19 from its platform.
‘We’re prioritizing the removal of COVID-19 content when it has a call to action that could potentially cause harm,’ according to a statement from Twitter.
‘As we’ve said previously, we will not take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information about COVID-19.’