In the lead up to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, social media platforms are facing a new challenge. An Israeli tech firm, Cyabra, discovered a massive network of fake, automated Twitter accounts that have been created to offer a stream of praise for Donald Trump. Besides posting adoring words about the former president, the fake accounts ridiculed Trump’s critics from both parties and attacked Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador who is challenging her onetime boss for the nomination. As for Ron DeSantis, the bots aggressively suggested that the Florida governor couldn’t beat Trump, but would be a great running mate. In this article, we will dive deep into the details of this network, how it works, and the impact it can have on the Republican nomination.
The Pro- Trump Bot Network
The new pro-Trump network is actually three different networks of Twitter accounts, all created in huge batches in April, October, and November 2022. In all, researchers believe hundreds of thousands of accounts could be involved. The accounts all feature personal photos of the alleged account holder as well as a name. Some of the accounts posted their own content, often in reply to real users, while others reposted content from real users, helping to amplify it further.
When Cyabra researchers examined negative posts about specific Trump critics, they found far higher levels of inauthenticity. Nearly three-fourths of the negative posts about Haley, for example, were traced back to fake accounts. The network also helped popularize a call for DeSantis to join Trump as his vice presidential running mate — an outcome that would serve Trump well and allow him to avoid a potentially bitter matchup if DeSantis enters the race.
Most bots aren’t designed to persuade people, but to amplify certain content so more people see it, according to Samuel Woolley, a professor and misinformation researcher at the University of Texas whose most recent book focuses on automated propaganda. When a human user sees a hashtag or piece of content from a bot and reposts it, they’re doing the network’s job for it.
The Impact on the Republican Nomination
As Republican voters size up their candidates for 2024, whoever created the bot network is seeking to put a thumb on the scale, using online manipulation techniques pioneered by the Kremlin to sway the digital platform conversation about candidates while exploiting Twitter’s algorithms to maximize their reach. The same network of accounts shared overwhelmingly positive content about Trump and contributed to an overall false picture of his support online.
“Our understanding of what is mainstream Republican sentiment for 2024 is being manipulated by the prevalence of bots online,” the Cyabra researchers concluded. Bots, as they are commonly called, are fake, automated accounts that became notoriously well-known after Russia employed them in an effort to meddle in the 2016 election. While big tech companies have improved their detection of fake accounts, the network identified by Cyabra shows they remain a potent force in shaping online political discussion.
One way of gauging the impact of bots is to measure the percentage of posts about any given topic generated by accounts that appear to be fake. The percentage for typical online debates is often in the low single digits. Twitter itself has said that less than 5% of its active daily users are fake or spam accounts. However, this bot network has revealed that fake accounts can still be a potent force in shaping political discussions.
The Detection of Fake Accounts
Big tech companies have improved their detection of fake accounts, but the network identified by Cyabra shows that they remain a potent force in shaping online political discussion. It is important to detect these accounts and shut them down.
The use of bots in political manipulation is not new, but the scale and sophistication of the pro-Trump bot network uncovered by Cyabra are particularly alarming. By exploiting Twitter’s algorithms and amplifying certain content, the network seeks to shape public opinion and manipulate the online conversation about Republican candidates for the 2024 presidential nomination.
While the identity of those behind the bot network remains unknown, its impact on online discourse is clear. The prevalence of fake accounts and inauthentic content creates a false picture of support for certain candidates and distorts the public’s understanding of mainstream political sentiment.
As we approach the 2024 election, it is essential that voters remain vigilant and skeptical of online content, particularly on social media platforms. By remaining informed and aware of these tactics, we can safeguard our democracy and ensure that our political discourse is free from manipulation.