Bot Sentinel conducted an analysis and found bots and trolls are using hashtags like #ReopenAmericaNow and #StopTheMadness to spread disinformation.
- Protests have popped up around the US calling for states to end quarantine and reopen businesses.
- An analysis from Bot Sentinel, a bot tracking platform, found that bots and trolls have been stoking sentiments online that have fueled the protests, using hashtags like #ReopenAmericaNow and #StopTheMadness.
- Online disinformation seemingly used to stoke political tension in the US has been frequently reported on since the 2016 election when Russian actors used bots and active trolling to support Donald Trump, organize events, and spread political memes.
- Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of the fact-checking website Truth or Fiction, says that reporters need to do a better job of reporting on the protests in the context of the disinformation.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Videos of protesters around the nation demanding their governors reopen businesses have been all over social media over the past week or so, and Donald Trump has offered pseudo-encouragement by tweeting that they need to "liberate" states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. The same rhetoric that is being used at these protests has been spreading like wildfire on social media as bots and trolls attempt to use disinformation to get states to reopen.
Christopher Bouzy, the founder of bot tracking platform Bot Sentinel, conducted a Twitter analysis for Business Insider and found bots and trolls are using hashtags like #ReOpenNC, #ReopenAmericaNow, #StopTheMadness, #ENDTHESHUTDOWN, and #OperationGridlock to spread disinformation. According to Bouzy, the bots and trolls are spreading conspiracy theories about Democrats wanting to hurt the economy to make Trump look bad, Democrats trying to take away people's civil liberties, and Democrats trying to prevent people from voting. The accounts are also using false data to underplay the threat of the coronavirus.
"We use machine learning and artificial intelligence to classify accounts," Bouzy says. "Back in 2018, I trained the initial model using 2,500 normal Twitter accounts, and 2500 inauthentic accounts I was tracking for several months. Approximately 5,000,000 tweets were used to create the first model."
"Inauthentic accounts are amplifying disinformation and inaccurate statistics and sharing false information as a reason to reopen the country," Bouzy says. "Many of these accounts are also spreading bizarre conspiracy theories about Democrats using COVID-19 as a way to take away American freedoms and prevent Americans from voting."
—anthony edwards (@anthony3741) April 19, 2020
When reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson disputed the idea that the company is allowing bots and trolls to spread disinformation on its platform, and criticized Bot Sentinel's methodology, which uses publicly available information from the company. Ironically, Twitter pointed to its bi-yearly "transparency report," which supposedly uses unreleased private data, as a superior indicator of bot activity, but it only provides general figures on how many spam challenges and reports the platform sees.
"With respect to COVID-19, we're prioritizing content that contains a call to action that could cause potential physical harm," the spokesperson said. "Under these our expanded policies, we've removed more than 2,200 Tweets. As we've doubled down on tech, our automated systems have challenged more than 3.4 million accounts which were targeting discussions around COVID-19 with spammy or manipulative behaviors."
Bouzy says the amount of inauthentic activity he's seeing surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak "eclipses" anything he's ever observed before.
Bouzy says it's difficult to quantify the magnitude of this problem and how much influence it's having, but there are at least "several hundred" accounts sharing this disinformation.
"These accounts are spreading disinformation about why it is safe to return to work and go back to normal activities," Bouzy says. "Inauthentic accounts are downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, and they sharing inaccurate information about the mortality rate of the virus. The problem is significant because many of these inauthentic accounts are retweeted by other larger accounts, which increases their reach and visibility."
According to the New York Times, Chinese operatives spread claims on social media in mid-March that the Trump administration was going to lock down the entire country and enforce this lockdown with soldiers on the streets. The White House's National Security Council later tweeted that these claims were false. That was just some of the disinformation that's been spread on social media by inauthentic sources.
—Dan B. (@DanbCarolina) April 19, 2020
Social media companies are making some efforts to combat this problem.
Facebook, for instance, has been taking down pages and posts promoting anti-quarantine protests. Twitter has been attempting to remove posts that spread disinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak, but it's clear the social media companies are struggling to keep up.
In terms of the people protesting in-person, many have claimed these protests themselves are not entirely organic in nature. The Guardian has reported that some protests have been backed by wealthy conservative groups, and it appears, according to BuzzFeed, that one protest in Michigan was funded by the family of Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
—ConservativeHusky #NRALifetime Member #Nationalist (@CnsrvativeHusky) April 19, 2020
Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of the fact-checking website Truth or Fiction and former managing editor of Snopes, tells Business Insider that the media has been struggling with its coverage of the protests, which she says are "completely inauthentic and coordinated."
"Journalists are largely missing that fact in their bids to find 'other sides to the story,'" Binkowski says.
Binkowski says it's likely foreign actors that are looking to foment chaos in the United States are contributing to the spread of disinformation and the promotion of anti-quarantine protests, similar to gatherings and protests that were organized and stoked by Russian actors during the 2016 election. She believes that the disinformation is being spread by trolls and bots but also by "useful idiots."
"Empowering violent extremists is a very old method for collapsing unstable states," Binkowski says. "This is the end result of weaponized disinformation — it's doing its job. It would have been the virus or it would have been something like a fire, or a hurricane, or an earthquake. But disinformation purveyors are nothing if not opportunistic."
Bots and trolls are spreading disinformation online that could end up putting countless lives in danger, and Binkowski believes reporters aren't being critical enough when they're covering this issue. We're already seeing states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee announcing they will soon ease quarantine restrictions so they can attempt to return to business as usual, but reopening states too early could have catastrophic effects. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious-disease expert, has claimed rushing to end quarantines will increase death tolls and further damage the US economy.
It's not clear who's behind this disinformation campaign that's contributing to anti-quarantine efforts, but it seems likely those behind it do not have the United States' health interests at heart.
This article was updated to include a statement from Twitter.