HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – After the 2016 presidential election, the country learned social media can be used to interfere with the democratic process. Since then, social media bots have become more advanced and widely used.
Based on reports from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, efforts to influence and interfere are under way again in 2020.
One of the weapons deployed are bots – autonomous computer programs used on social media sites and elsewhere. The bots are designed to mimic real people – voters— and convey messages appearing to show widespread support or opposition to a given candidate, fake news story, or wild claim.
Cyber security experts say up to 20 percent of activity on Twitter alone is from bots.
Phish Firewall Chief Hacker Joshua Crumbaugh purchased and programmed two bots, specifically for this story to show how they work. On Monday, he programmed them to tweet every few minutes.
“It’s a set it and forget it kind of thing,” Crumbaugh said.
He made one fake Twitter account supporting President Trump and another supporting Joe Biden.
“What this particular Twitter bot does is it goes in and it looks for a particular hashtag, and then it grabs the latest tweet from that hashtag, and then it retweets it,” Crumbaugh said. “I can retweet it with comments. Emojis are fun because it seems like someone is really behind it.”
And that’s not all.
“Because I have access to the API (a unique identifier used for authentication), I can do a lot of analytics and sort of look into the data and find out, you know, who’s really tweeting about these things, what their network is, who to target for example,” he said. “So if I wanted to, I could go in and download all of Trump’s followers and go and tell it to systematically go through and like each one of those followers.”
Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a recognized expert in social media and psychology. She says bots can also be used to create fake news stories and even design fake news outlets to post them.
“We’re all subject to looking at them, thinking that the message is real, trusting it because other people trusted it, and interacted and engaged, and participated,” North said. “Or because there are multiple, multiple sources verifying it and corroborating it.”
North outlined why this kind of targeting can be particularly sinister.
“They can put them all over your sort of view of the internet. So once you click on one, it will start recommending more and more and more ‘news stories’. And you think, ‘oh look this is a big news story, it’s in all these different newspapers’. And you can go down that rabbit hole from one news story to the next, to the next, to the next. And what you don’t realize is that was all one campaign, run by one person with a bot that created numerous versions of the same sinister story,” she said.
Bots have been linked to elections before, like the 2016 presidential race. Crumbaugh says Twitter has taken some security measures to limit the use of bots.
“I was impressed by how difficult Twitter made it on us,” he said. “Twitter is clearly cracking down on their API accounts. We signed up for a number of different accounts and used all kinds of different pretexts as to why we needed API keys. We started out with the truth, ‘Hey, we’re doing this news story.'”
Those attempts didn’t work. He ended up buying the two accounts with API keys, from a company based in Russia to work around Twitter’s request denial.
Monday morning both accounts were up and running.
“Where there is a will there is a way,” he said. “You know, I could have bought thousands of these accounts. I mean if I had a big budget and I was a nation state trying to influence it, it wouldn’t have been an issue at all.”
Crumbaugh explained there is a ‘gray’ market for bots.
“There’s plenty of them out there that sell specifically this,” he said. “In fact, you can buy influencer accounts just directly if you’re willing to pay enough. These same sort of marketplaces, you can just hire somebody to build your bots for you and tell them how many you want, what you want them tweeting about, what you want them to do and they’ll go and do this behind the scenes for you.”
Alabama’s elections aren’t immune to this type of influence.
“It’s happening by what appears to be legitimate Facebook news, illegitimate Twitter accounts, those kinds of things that are not legitimate,” said U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, who is running for reelection. “And so the interference is really an attempt to influence, pitting one side against the other, to make sure that they continue to stoke the division in this country,”
During Alabama’s 2017 Senate race between Jones and Republican Roy Moore, bots were used against the former judge, including the creation of a fake campaign pushing a state-wide alcohol ban in an effort to divide Republican voters.
“The hinge of power in the United States Senate could be in this race in Alabama,” said Terry Lathan, Alabama Republican Party Chairman.
Lathan says she believes the 2020 Senate race is a tempting target.
“Are there people out there around the world and around our nation that want to get their hands on this and try to adjust the levels of power through Alabama? You bet there are. Are they going to sit back quietly on the sideline and go, ‘Oh well, we’ll see what the people of Alabama decide?’ No, they’re not,” Lathan said.
The Jones campaign says it is on guard.
“We are constantly monitoring Russian bots. It’s stunning the number of bots that troll candidates these days,” Jones said.
Can the bots be stopped?
North says new laws targeting political advertising online would help. There are already laws mandating that TV and radio ads include information about who paid for the ad and if it is endorsed by a candidate.
“Those laws have not been extended to social media and to me you have to wonder why has that not been done,” she said. “Because imagine the 2016 election, if a message came through, and in the message it said this message has been paid for by the Kremlin, wouldn’t you think twice before believing it?”
There are a few different signs that a post is from a bot. Keep an eye out for grammatical errors and redundancy.
“So, a lot of bots don’t have profile pictures, they don’t have bios in them or anything about them in their profiles. So, you can look at that,” Crumbaugh explained.
Crumbaugh says check to see when the account was made and how many followers it has. Oftentimes new social media accounts with few followers are more likely to be bots.