US Elections 2016 saw the social media turning into a potential landmine. A hurricane of fake news ripped through our news feeds and most of us ended up believing and sharing it (not to mention the utter trauma of having to repost with a blushing emoji for every unfortunate sharing incident).
Fake news got created as a result of bored hoaxers looking to prank unassuming voters, fueled by some incredulous claims already doing the rounds (thanks to Donald Trump: “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive,” Umm, honestly?)
This particular claim turned out to be gold for fraudsters. So, a certain Christian Times Newspaper (and not the real “Christian Times”) reported a CCTV footage of “Democrats stuffing votes into ballot boxes.” This, in fact, was the BBC footage from the Russian elections that were held in September 2016. Ouch.
We’ve got to give it to Trump this time around, he pretty much nailed his social media campaign. His posting frequency could make an RSS feed envious. (Do you want to find out how he did it? Sign up for the Digital Marketing course with AcadGild.)
Jokes and parodies have always ruled the roost in any elections, but it got hilariously quite difficult to tell a joke from reality this US elections 2016.
Alec Baldwin, impersonating Donald Trump on a skit on Saturday Night Live, hilariously joked, “These e-mails are very bad for you, Hillary, that’s why I never, ever use e-mail. It’s too risky. Instead, I use a very private, very secure site where one can write whatever they want to and no one will read it. It’s called Twitter.”
Following which, Baldwin’s Trump was corrected saying that everybody could read his Tweets, and his expression was priceless.
Image courtesy: Saturday Night Live. Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump
Though, this was an extreme case of exaggeration (that’s what SNL skits are all about anyway), but Trump did manage to garner dubious proportions of support based on literally anything that he said.
See, what I mean? This was tweeted only 20 minutes before he went in for the interview! The number of retweets and likes look fishy to me if you ask.
In April this year, Patrick Ruffini, a political digital consultant, posted a spreadsheet of close to 500 pro-Trump Twitter accounts that had tweeted, in unison, a message issued by the Trump campaign encouraging voters to file FCC complaints against robocalls from the Cruz campaign (Umm, weren’t some of these Tweeters bots themselves? Trump and his campaign manager clearly have a wicked sense of humor.)
These 500 Twitter accounts, as expected, turned out to be bots—automated accounts that exist only to extend the social reach of whoever hires them. Twitter subsequently suspended many of them.
Though not proven yet, it is alleged that Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (the Democratic presidential candidate), herself has quite a many numbers of fake Twitter accounts following her, though it isn’t clear yet how many of those are Twitterbots.
The next one sure takes the cake.
“TheRightists.com/.com” (yes, with two .coms) published a fake news that said that Clinton wanted to see Donald Trump running for the presidency!
In her words, “I can’t help but think of a particular one that I would just love to see running for the presidency at some point in the future. I don’t know what it is exactly about him, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but my instinct is almost never wrong. And it’s telling me that Donald Trump would be very successful if he were to venture into politics in the future.”
This was part of the interview that Clinton apparently delivered to Goldman Sachs in 2013.
Things like making spoof news websites are pretty standard for fraudsters (for instance, the BBC Mews), but this year, they took their shenanigans one step ahead. They got web robots, or bots, that automated news on Twitter to do their dirty work for them.
(Now, when did this ever happen?!)
Researchers found out that bots are being used to amplify support on Twitter. A hoard of automated accounts has been created till date that are tweeting messages with #makeamericagreatagain or #draintheswamp for Trump; #imwithher for Clinton. It was found out that a massive one-third of tweets using pro-Trump tweets and one-fifth of them using pro-Clinton tweet were created by bots.
What these pranksters don’t realize is that their jokes could swing public opinion dangerously in this age of hyper-connectivity (unless, this kind of thing is not coming out of the presidential candidates’ own campaigns, and my hunches tell me that this might just be the case).
It is also a known fact that in the past, US Republican and Democratic candidates have sought the expertise of social media management or content management firms or ‘astroturf’ activists that have built Twitterbots for them.
“A lot of conversations on social media, especially those followed by journalists, are about what’s trending and which candidate has a lot of support online, but what we found was that a lot of traffic surrounding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is actually manufactured,” said Samuel Woolley, director of research at Political Bot.
In 2010, a conservative group in Iowa, the American Future Fund, set up nine Twitter automated accounts that sent 929 tweets (followed by close to 60,000 people) with messages accusing Martha Coakley (a Democratic nominee for US Senate) of being anti-Catholic.
Such things are more popularly known as “Twitter-Bombs.”
“Today the proportion of bots to humans on the Internet is about 50-50. Any task that is repetitive or mundane or can be simply automated is a likely candidate for a bot to take over,” said Tim Matthews, vice president of marketing at Imperva.
But, let’s cut these bots some slack; they find many good uses too. For example, web crawlers (or web spiders) are bots used by search engines to keep their indexes current. However, in a political context, they can have undesirable effects as we just saw.
And, some Twitterbots simply hang around for fun. Ranjit Bhatnagar’s Pentametron, a bot, combs through Twitter every hour and retweets the first rhyming couplet that it can find.
Neat, isn’t it?
Twitterbots are, essentially, computer programs that tweet of their own accord. They are connected directly to the Twitter mainline, where they parse information in real time and post at will; it’s basically a code-to-code connection, which is made possible by Twitter’s open application programming interface (API).
The most preferred language for coding Twitterbots is Python, but they can be created using PHP, a server-side scripting language used in web development (check out the Frontend Web Development course at AcadGild).
Twitterbots represent an open-access laboratory for some creative and genius programming, if used for good, they can pleasantly surprise you, and if used with intentions that are not so noble, they can result in electing a clown instead of a president in some part of the world.
Time will only tell how long will it take for Twitter to weed out these bots (Twitter now has a greater sense of responsibility as it has gone public).
Early voting is underway as you read, it’s now up to the people of America what kind of country they want to live in. This race has got ridiculously close in the past few hours (and will we ever know what was in those e-mails, after all, Madam Secretary?)
God speed, America.