Nearly half of some 200 million tweets about COVID-19 likely came from bots, with many of them plugging false cures, peddling conspiracy theories and clamoring for the U.S. to drop safety measures in order to re-open America, researchers have found.
Ongoing research by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University indicates that a significant portion of the social media conversation about COVID-19 is likely automated amplifications of political perspectives and do not represent individual human authors.
The study has reached no conclusion about which interests may be primarily responsible for the bots, but many of the messages are repeating information from Russian and Chinese state media. During the 2016 presidential election, computer operations linked to the Kremlin were found to be responsible for campaign tweets and other messages that further divided the American electorate by amplifying controversy.
With coronavirus, “We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that,” lead researcher Kathleen Carley, a computer science professor and head of the university’s Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity, said in a Carnegie Mellon report last week about the research.
“We do see that a lot of bots are acting in ways that are consistent with the story lines that are coming out of Russia or China,” Carley told VICE.
A European Union study concluded that the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin groups have launched a “significant disinformation campaign” about COVID-19 to sow panic in the West, Reuters reported earlier this year.
Researchers said that the sophisticated bot campaign concerning COVID-19 is also aimed at exacerbating divisions in the U.S. Messages peddling conspiracy theories “increase polarization in groups. It’s what many misinformation campaigns aim to do,” Carley said. “People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides.”
But she also said that because the pandemic is global, it’s also likely being used by “various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas.”
Carley’s team identified more than 100 inaccurate narratives about COVID-19, mostly involving fake cures (like drinking — or not drinking — Corona beer) and scores of conspiracy theories. Those conversations also included a push to re-open America. Carley said in a video lecture last month that hate speech is growing in the social media debate about COVID-19, and it’s “forming hate communities.”
The team looked at several factors to determine what likely constituted a bot, such as “tweeting more frequently than is humanly possible or appearing to be in one country and then another a few hours later,” she said.
“When we see a whole bunch of tweets at the same time or back to back, it’s like they’re timed,” Carley said. “We also look for use of the same exact hashtag, or messaging that appears to be copied and pasted from one bot to the next.”
Researchers have been seeing “up to two times as much bot activity as we’d predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises and elections,” said Carley.
The study is ongoing and is now also examining messages on Facebook, Reddit and YouTube.
Jevin West, who runs the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, told Vice last month that the “real goal” of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns is “about creating distrust in the overall ecosystem and institutions. It’s not so much about picking a side as it is about creating confusion and doubt and distrust of authority.”
For a deeper dive in what Carley’s team is doing, check out the video below based on research gathered through early April:
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