Forget “Killer Robots”, Start Worrying About Info & Opinion Bots

…and DARPA is sounding the warning about what really is worrying them these days.

Concerned by the future potential of fake social media accounts, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Social Media in Strategic Communication program held a four-week challenge in February in which several teams competed to identify a set of influence bots on Twitter.

A USC team of faculty and graduate students received first place for accuracy and second place for timing. Aram Galstyan, a research associate professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and project leader at the USC Information Sciences Institute led the victorious Trojans.

“Spamming behavior has evolved,” Galstyan said. “Current bots tend to be more human-like, and people have realized that they can be used for propagating certain kind of information, possibly influencing discussions on specific topics.”

Bots represent a threat to society, according to experts. In our increasingly digital age, more and more people get their news from social media, which is one of the main reasons why the spread of misinformation within these channels is a risk.

Bots can also be used for political purposes, which some organizations have taken advantage of. For example, it is well known that terrorist groups such as ISIS have used online social media as a way of reaching younger audiences and persuading them to join their cause. Examples of this persuasive behavior include the use of hashtags to focus group messaging and the creation of multiple accounts that post a high amount of tweets, pictures and links to people’s accounts.

Back in the Cold War, magazines were the main vehicles for propaganda. Today, the propaganda war takes place online.

“People normally trust online content,” said Farshad Kooti, one of the Ph.D. candidates at USC Viterbi who worked with Galstyan. “Unfortunately, this introduces an opportunity to spread misinformation by using automated bots that are very hard to detect.”

For the DARPA competition, Galstyan’s team created a bot detection method that he said has proven 100 percent accurate. The overall process can be divided into three steps: initial bot detection, clustering and classification.

During initial bot detection, the team uses linguistics, behavior and inconsistencies as parameters to uncover a first set of bots. These cues include unusual grammar, number of tweets posted and stock pictures used in profile photos.

The second step focuses on identifying the accounts to which the first set of bots is linked. Studies suggest that most bot developers create clusters in which bots are connected to each other to increase retweets.

Finally, once a certain number of bots has been found, algorithms can be used to classify them.

While bot detection methods have become more accurate, bot creators are also enhancing their programming skills. The number of influence bots, as well as their degree of sophistication, will likely increase in the future, Galstyan said. We can expect new sets of more complex bots to engage in advertising activities and political influencing.

“The overall message of the DARPA challenge is that we need to watch out for what may be coming ahead,” he noted. “This is a dynamically evolving problem, and the solutions that work today may become ineffective tomorrow. I believe that next step is to refine our methods and test them by analyzing specific campaigns.”

  • BillyHW

    I think Michael Coren has been kidnapped and replaced by a NAMBLA spam bot.

  • Millie_Woods

    Really, spambots is DARPA’s biggest worry! It’s as if they never heard of Richard Snowden, Julian Assange and that twinky private whatshisname. Don’t they know that the personal records, including security clearance data, of hundreds of thousands of government and military personnel was recently pilfered by a foreign government? It was in all the papers. Maybe that section was missing in their copy.


    The west is doomed.

    • I hate them Spam Bots.

    • bargogx1

      It’s not about spam, it’s about propaganda, which must have some degree of effectiveness considering the amount of time and effort numerous government and military organizations have put into it over the last hundred years or so.

      • Millie_Woods

        Hacking into the American government’s ‘secure’ databases undetected and making off with millions of highly sensitive records is pure propaganda. I still say they have more immediate and pressing problems.

        • Drunk_by_Noon

          This isn’t spam.
          This is the creation and implanting of memes into the popular discourse and is orders of magnitude more dangerous than anything Snowden ever did, and he did a lot.

          • Millie_Woods

            “Implanting memes into the popular discourse”

            I’m afraid that horse has already ecaped the barn. And I don’t have any more confidence the ‘authorities’ can counter a memebot any better than they can protect their data. Plainly the Americans have been infiltrated by foreign spies and domestic traitors at the same time their bureaucratic gatekeepers are too fat and lazy to bother patching vital servers or are busy listening in on private conversations. National security is looking more like an unworkable contraption. And all the wonks at DARPA can do is whip out their iPads and worry us about a new boogie man. Fail!

  • bargogx1

    This is mind control. It’s here, it’s with us, it’s now. The sheep are being led to the slaughter.

  • andycanuck

    I use Bing as my browser’s home page and there’s many a time I’ve noticed their “trending links” in the bottom right-hand corner and known there’s absolutely no way that some leftist meme was trending when there were alot bigger, popular events happening concurrently that didn’t make it to “trending” status. And not this example exactly (as I just read them; sneer; and say, “Yeah, right” before ignoring them) but the equivalent of there being a “Harper bombs Iraq” link while there’s no trending link for “Chicago wins Cup!”