Research has found that automated Twitter accounts have contributed largely to online debate on the US Presidential Election. More than four times as many tweets were made by automated accounts in favour of Donald Trump than those in favour of Hillary Clinton.
The investigation was part of a wider project led by Prof Philip Howard at the University of Oxford, on the subject of computational propaganda.
The study looked at tweets posted on 26 September, the day of the debate, and the three days following it. The results suggested that 32.7% of such pro-Trump tweets had been posted by bots and 22.3% of such pro-Clinton ones.
There are several give-away signs that a Twitter account is in fact a bot. Often bot accounts do not feature a profile image or have a generic one, follow many more accounts than they are followed by, and have little to say apart from the topic of conversation they have been created to post about. Other indications an account is automated is that they tweet prolifically and do not have breaks where a human would sleep, and they send out identical tweets to a number of different users.
It is unclear what effect the bots actually have on voter behaviour, but they certainly have the capacity to manipulate public opinion. Prof Howard believes that negative messages are more likely to have an impact than positive ones, as political media campaigns place an importance on engaging with supporters and political hashtags help peak interest levels.
One positive finding from the study is that humans are still the dominant force on Twitter and for the most part they seek out posts from other people.