Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Twitter study finds pattern in US vote posts

Ordinary accounts are suspected to have been used to bolster automated campaigns to populate social media with posts declaring that illegal immigrants are paid to vote and Democrats run ‘false flag’ operations

By Dune Lawrence  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

Days before the US midterm elections, researchers identified what they called a coordinated network of Twitter accounts that was pushing false and misleading narratives about election integrity with hashtags like #VoterFraud.

They found a core of 200 accounts that tweeted or were mentioned in tweets more than 140 million times over the past year, according to a research report published on Saturday last week.

The findings do not necessarily reflect a reprise of the Russian influence efforts in the 2016 election, nor is the tweeting clearly driven by automated bots, researchers say.

However, the network of accounts, which sounds off at relatively regular intervals — even at times when there was nothing about the topic in the news — has helped create an echo chamber to justify state-level ballot restrictions, despite little evidence of actual voter fraud.

“There is a tragically ironic relationship between the perception that large groups of people are voting illegally,” while a small group of Twitter accounts is “wielding massive influence to spread disinformation, affecting the public’s understanding of voter fraud,” the report says.

It was prepared by a volunteer group of researchers and technologists led by Guardians.ai, a New York start-up that is focused on protecting pro-democracy organizations from information warfare and cyberattacks.

Researchers could not identify who was behind the coordination — and they said the patterns they found suggest that online influence operations have evolved in subtle ways that avoid detection.

“We set out to provide a new way for the public to understand how influence works,” the report says. “Today a small group of people can wield increasingly more powerful AI, big data and psychological targeting to influence society, and we feel that it’s a fundamental right to know who’s influencing you, how it’s happening and why.”

A spokesman for Twitter Inc said in a statement that the research “helps us and the public understand how groups organize around topics and movements.”

“While we prohibit coordinated malicious behavior and enforce accordingly, we’ve also seen real people who share the same views organize using Twitter,” the company’s statement said. “This report effectively captures what often happens when hot-button issues gain attention and traction in active groups.”

In the middle of September, researchers at Guardians.ai began digging into the hashtag #VoterFraud from the sparsely furnished Brooklyn apartment that serves as their headquarters.

Brett Horvath, one of the company’s three founders, first got into online organizing more than decade ago, helping launch an app that allowed people in Washington State and Arizona to register to vote from their Facebook profiles. His cofounders, Zachary Verdin and Alicia Serrani, worked together at New Hive, a multimedia publishing platform for artists. Partners at San Diego Supercomputer Center’s Data Science Hub — part of the University of California at San Diego — and Zignal Labs technology was used in the research.

Horvath and Serrani discovered spikes in the hashtag on two days in August, when mentions jumped from hundreds a day to more than 6,500. Intrigued, they looked back 12 months, and then three years, and found the pattern of upticks repeating so regularly that the graph looked like a heartbeat.

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