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How to Rig an Election: Twitter’s Problem With Political Saboteurs

A new study from researchers at The University of Manchester investigates the sophisticated network of agents on Twitter who work to distribute fake news during election campaigns.

The paper — “Political Astroturfing on Twitter: How to Coordinate a Disinformation Campaign” — was published in the journal Political Communication. “Astroturfing” comes from the way in which agents appear to be part of a genuine grassroots movement, when in fact, they are part of an orchestrated and centrally managed campaign.

Using court records from a case in South Korea, where the National Information Service (NIS) was caught trying to influence the 2012 presidential election, the researchers were able to identify 1,008 Twitter accounts controlled by NIS agents. They then examined the patterns of interaction between these known “astroturfers,” discovering that they showed clear traces of coordination.

This coordination emerged from what University researcher Dr. David Schoch calls “the principal agent problem.” He says:

Their desire to speed up the process leads to the agents copying and pasting messages across several accounts, which allowed the researchers to look for tweets with exactly the same content that were posted in a short time window. “In summary,” says Dr. Schoch:

Dr. David Schoch, School of Social Sciences, said:

A key point that makes this paper notable is that it focussed on networks of real human agents, rather than the automated “bots” that we usually think of when we talk about fake news on Twitter. In fact, the results of the study show that networks of human actors actually display more coordinated patterns than bots.

The authors also had the NIS data to use as a “ground truth” dataset, says Dr. Schoch, otherwise they would

Applying this information to the Twitter data obtained from the court case, the researchers were able to detect a further 921 suspect accounts likely to be involved in the NIS campaign. They are also investigating previous campaigns. Dr. Schoch adds:

Provided by: Callum Wood, University of Manchester [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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  • Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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