The mainstream media has taken a lot of hits from @realDonaldTrump for allegedly reporting #fakenews, but President Trump himself was fooled this past weekend by a fake Twitter account. On Saturday evening, Trump retweeted “Nicole,” also known as @Protrump45, who tweeted at him to thank him for his hard work.
Almost immediately, users like @Rschooley found that the account exhibited Twitter bot-like behaviors, and Eliot Higgins of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab determined that the account was part of an advertising campaign that used a botnet of fake Trump-supporter accounts to sell Trump-branded clothing. @Protrump45 has since been suspended from Twitter, along with a number of similar accounts.
The use of bots like the one Trump retweeted is becoming an increasingly common practice. Twitter bots are automated accounts that can post and engage with other users, usually around specified keywords, and botnets are networks of these accounts programmed to act in the same way. Bots aren’t inherently a bad thing; Twitter accounts for news outlets are usually automated to share newly published articles throughout the day.
However, large Twitter botnets—especially those that pose as human-linked accounts—can be effectively used to amplify a message online and produce tangible results; for example, different botnets were used to share pro-Trump and pro-Clinton messages during the 2016 election. The DOJ is even looking into a botnet operated by a Russian cyber criminal who is allegedly connected to attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
So, what was the President of the United States doing retweeting one of these fake accounts, and how can you avoid making the same mistake? While botnets can be very recognizable to those who know what to look for, a Twitter bot is typically created to trick users into believing the account is real.
While botnets can vary, there are a few common behaviors that suggest an account is automated. If an account is exhibiting more than one of these behaviors, you can be pretty confident that it is #fakenews:
- Posting excessively: If an account is posting hundreds of times per day, it is likely a bot.
- Using a stolen profile picture: Bots will often use generic or stolen photos as their profile and cover photos. Try running a reverse Google image search to find out if an account’s profile picture is a stock image or is associated with multiple Twitter accounts.
- Sticking to a single subject: Accounts that only share content related to one subject or ideology (content exclusively from far-right and far-left “newsites,” for example) may be programmed to do so.
Recognizing Twitter bots that share fake news not only helps dampen the spread of disinformation on social media (a worthy enough reason to pay attention to bots by itself), but will also help you maintain your credibility online. It is especially important for people using social media to increase their profile as a thought leader to always check their sources, even on Twitter, before sharing content.
As of this posting, President Trump has yet to delete his tweet, which has now been retweeted 10,384 times. Don’t let yourself be one of the millions of people, including our president, who have been used by these fake news networks to amplify their own messages.