As the US begins to lift shutdown orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there's been a fierce argument online over the risks and benefits of reopening. New research suggests that bots have been dominating that debate.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers analyzed over 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 and related issues since January. Roughly half of the accounts discussing the virus — including 62% of the 1,000 accounts with the most influence — appear to be bots, the researchers said in a new report published this week.
That's a far higher level of bot activity than usual, even when it comes to contentious public events. By contrast, the level of bot involvement in discussions of public events like US elections or natural disasters is typically 10% to 20%.
Researchers identify bots using artificial intelligence systems that analyze accounts' frequency of tweets, number of followers, and apparent location.
"Tweeting more frequently than is humanly possible or appearing to be in one country and then another a few hours later is indicative of a bot," computer science professor and research lead Kathleen Carley said in a release. "When we see a whole bunch of tweets at the same time or back to back, it's like they're timed ... 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."
Among tweets explicitly discussing "reopen America," researchers found that 66% of tweets came from accounts that are possibly humans using bot assistants to spread their tweets more widely, while 34% of tweets came from bots themselves.
There are a few possible explanations for the surge in bot activity — people may have more time to set up elaborate bot networks amid the shutdown, and the availability of botnets-for-hire has exploded recently. Carley also notes that the global nature of the pandemic means there are countries and interest groups across the world with clear political agendas.
However, the researchers did not determine an origin of the bot activity, or narrow down whether it's coming from foreign nation-state actors or from within the US.
"Even if someone appears to be from your community, if you don't know them personally, take a closer look, and always go to authoritative or trusted sources for information," Carley said. "Just be very vigilant."