How bots accounts are putting lives in danger during Covid-19

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It’s easy to be misled by a bot account. It is also challenging to spot the difference between a bot and a real account. Picture: Twitter
It’s easy to be misled by a bot account. It is also challenging to spot the difference between a bot and a real account. Picture: Twitter

NEWS


The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of having access to factual information to enable people to make informed decisions on their health and safety.

In addition to limiting the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, governments across the world are fighting against mis- and disinformation, and countering conspiracy theories about the cause of the virus and the effects of vaccines.

In South Africa, government has announced that “anyone [who] creates or spreads fake news about the coronavirus Covid-19 is liable for prosecution”.

Read: Covid-19: Let’s abandon the fake news paranoia

While much of the false information and conspiracy theories are posted by real people through their official accounts, the role of automated bots which use artificial intelligence to spread disinformation is increasing dramatically.

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at the University of Cape Town has created a new public service announcement (PSA) to make the public aware of how bots are influencing the online conversation about the Covid-19 vaccinations.

A robot was created by 3D printing to produce the PSA.

The CABC aims to counter vaccine hesitancy and ensure that a sufficiently high number of South Africans are vaccinated to secure herd immunity.

About 70% of the population has to be vaccinated for the country to reach herd immunity, but anti-vax sentiment is jeopardising the achievement of this target.

A bot is an automated social media  account managed by an algorithm instead of a real person. Bots are designed to make posts without human intervention.

Bots are not necessarily a bad tool. They can use data from digital footprints that is collected when asocial media user logs onto the internet, visits a website or watches videos to personalise content to the individual user’s preferences.

This data can help advertisers to target prospective consumers online. However, these bots can also mimic human accounts and lure unsuspecting social media users into sharing posts containing disinformation.

It’s easy to be misled by a bot account. It is also challenging to spot the difference between a bot and a real account. Here are some basic tell-tale signs that the account you’re interacting with is actually a bot:

. They do not use profile pictures on their social media accounts, and typically use stock images sourced from the internet;

. Their timelines usually consist of posts pushing the same narratives;

. They follow more social media accounts than they have followers; and

. They constantly retweet other posts instead of generating new posts.


It’s easy to be misled by a bot account. It is also challenging to spot the difference between a bot and a real account. Here are some basic tell-tale signs that the account you’re interacting with is actually a bot:

. They do not use profile pictures on their social media accounts, and typically use stock images sourced from the internet;

. Their timelines usually consist of posts pushing the same narratives;

. They follow more social media accounts than they have followers; and

. They constantly retweet other posts instead of generating new posts.

It is estimated that there are more than 500 million bot accounts on social media spreading fake news and disinformation. The reasons for creating and spreading mis- and disinformation include:

. Money – pushing traffic to fake news websites to generate advertising income;

. The desire to connect with an online “tribe”, like fellow supporters of a political party or a cause; and

. Attempting to influence public opinion by discrediting a political opponent.

During the 2016 US presidential election as much as 20% of political discussion on social media was generated by about 400 000 social media bots, a study by First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal found.

In some cases, bot accounts were created by a single group to ensure that topics appear to be more talked about than they really are.

Some bot accounts are created by real users to create online conflict and draw other users into topics that are not as relevant as they appear. The DFRLab has observed such trolls using bots to amplify some of their messages.

For bots to successfully disrupt social cohesion, they need unsuspecting online users to accept their posts as the truth without verification. They need users to share this information and that will instil panic and fear in others.

The main message of the CABC’s new PSA is: don’t be a passive follower like Pete, the character in the film who was duped by Ronald the robot.

Social media users should use platforms such as Real411 and Bot Sentinel  to report suspicious bot accounts and disinformation.

As South Africa rolls out its vaccination programme, it is critical for social media users to differentiate between fact and fake, and not to fall for the range of false conspiracy theories put out by the anti-vaxxers.

This has now become a matter of life and death: believing false information can kill you.

Mokoka is a journalist at CABC


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