Army of bots power anti-Muslim activists
When is a virulent, hateful, anti-Muslim activist not a virulent, hateful, anti- Muslim activist? When the virulent, hateful, anti-Muslim activist is a bot — a computer programme designed to retweet messages from virulent, hateful, anti-Muslim activists.
Not that there is much difference as the message is the same. In fact, it’s exactly the same. It’s a sort of a sleight of hand designed to trick people into believing that this virulent, hateful, anti-Muslim activist has many more followers (or believers) than he or she does in reality, thus encouraging real people to accept the message.
Bots that retweet these bigoted messages are not to be ignored. They have become a real source of hatred and anti-Islamic rhetoric that Islamophobic activists are increasingly using to woo the public to support their message.
Anti-Islamic campaigners such as Americans Pamela Geller and Stephen Bannon or Brits Tommy Robinson and Jayda Fransen use the internet and social media to amplify their hate-filled messages. When those messages are retweeted by powerful people, such as US President Donald Trump as happened recently, it increases their ability to influence public opinion.
Geller and Fransen count on people’s willingness to accept whatever they see on Twitter or on the internet at face value. This allows them to manipulate stories, images or videos to paint Muslims as anti-Western and violent. Again, we must point to Trump as the most recent example. Trump retweeted three videos previously posted by Fransen. One proved to be completely wrong and the other two lacked context and meaning, allowing Fransen — and Trump — to use them as anti- Islamic propaganda.
There are also so-called news websites such as Bannon’s Breitbart, WorldNetDaily and countless others promoting every anti- Islamic story they can get their hands on. Again, they often lack context or are fake news invented to stir up hatred against Muslims.
This is not a small problem. A recent report by the British anti-racist organisation HOPE not Hate said that, in a sampling of anti- Muslim Twitter accounts in Britain and the United States, there was a 117% growth in followers from March through November. It also reported that its researchers had found about 102 bots that were automatically retweeting Geller.
Each bot is given a fake identity to make it seem like a real person is retweeting Geller’s message. The idea is to trick legitimate Twitter account holders into thinking Geller, Fransen or other bigots enjoy enormous support among the general public when in fact they don’t.
Bots are also extensively used by Russian provocateurs who seek to drive anti-Islamic feelings in the West as both a way to increase tensions and undermine democracy.
So how do you spot when a message is coming from a real human as opposed to a bot? Bots tend to express exactly the same message with exactly the same links, at exactly the same time. Programmes such as Botometer, designed by Northeastern University and Indiana University in the United States, use an algorithm based on more than 1,000 factors that determine a score that tells whether the message is real or from a bot.
It is not perfect, and the developers constantly work to improve it but, in a sense, it follows the familiar story of hackers always one step ahead of those trying to track them down.
There are also tricks to determine whether a Twitter account is a bot. If suspicious, check the Twitter account’s profile page to see when it was created and how often it posts tweets. If the account is posting more than 100 times a day only a few days after it was created, there is reason for caution. (Some Kremlin-based accounts have been known to tweet 750 times a day.) These accounts will often have very few, if any, original posts but many retweets and likes. There is very little information about the account’s owner.
Yet these rules only work for people who want to learn the truth. Sadly, Islamophobes such as Geller and Fransen aren’t interested in people who want to know the truth. They are basically interested in sheep who can be easily convinced. These days there tend to be an increasing number of sheep on Twitter and the internet rather than truth seekers.