One of the most difficult aspects of the battle against misinformation on the web is the pernicious prevalence of bots. These bots are lines of code hiding behind veneers of legitimate social media profiles, programmed to sow chaos through misinformation.
Fake news, or what we call “junk news” here at the office, has exploded over social media and it seems that one of the main culprits are bots. We started reporting on this for the PBS NewsHour in the runup to the 2016 US Presidential election:
“It’s like very easy to create one or 10 or 100 or 1,000 accounts controlled by that campaign and make it look like these are just regular people who are expressing their freedom of speech,” Filippo Menczer, Professor of Informatics and Computer Science at Indiana University, told us.
And these bots are numerous: somewhere “between 9 and 15%” of active Twitter users and “as many as 60 million” profiles on Facebook are programmed zombies, Menczer and colleagues wrote in a cover story for the journal Science last month.
But giving a definitive answer to how many misinforming bots there are on the web is like hitting a moving target. “Any success at detection, in turn, will inspire future countermeasures by bot producers,” the researchers write. “Identification of bots will therefore be a major ongoing research challenge.”
Menczer’s BotOrNot project, which helps determine if Twitter users are, well, bots or not, has been renamed Botometer since we covered it for the NewsHour. It, along with a tool named Hoaxy, won Menczer and team a Knight Foundation grant to further investigate the spread of misinformation online.
With this new ammunition, the battle continues. “As we always predicted, it’s a little bit of an arms race,” Menczer said when we caught up over the phone.
Menczer says Botometer has as of late had some trouble determining which Twitter users are bots, suggesting there are some newer, more sophisticated approaches being employed by the malicious programmers. Hoping to keep the edge, the Botometer team is working hard to upgrade their tool in the next few weeks.
“The point is not so much to detect all bots, because that’s impossible–just like we can’t even detect all spam,” said Menczer. “The point is to catch enough of it to make it harder and more expensive for people to abuse and manipulate social media.”
Bots are only part of the problem, however, and Menczer’s initiatives only part of the solution. Joining the fight against misinformation is our very own producer, Cameron Hickey.
Cameron was also a recipient of a Knight Foundation grant for his own digital sleuthing tool, NewsTracker. This led Cameron, Miles, and the rest of the team to dig for some answers deep in the shady world of junk news.
The first of our four-part junk news series for the PBS NewsHour airs tomorrow night. We’re really excited to share this developing story with you–so excited, in fact, that we couldn’t wait.
Also, send us your questions about junk news! We want to know what you’re wondering about and will endeavor to provide you just the facts… no junk.
Banner image credit: Geralt | Pixabay.