HOWTO: A Field Guide to Identifying Bots on Twitter

While multiple formal investigations against the Trump family and administration continue to unfold, and Drumpf supporters weirdly deny the probable cause for concern, Putin’s troll army continues to operate out in the open on Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and other social media networks. The sheer scale of this operation started to become clear to me in the months leading up to Election 2016, having both spent a lot of time on social media both professionally and personally for over a decade as well as a hefty amount of time on political investigation during this presidential cycle: bots on Twitter had taken over.

Whatever your thoughts on the #RussiaGate corruption scandal may be, it should concern any citizen that an enormous group of bad actors is working together to infiltrate American social media, with a specific intent to sway politics. Media literacy is one part of the answer, but we’re going to need new tools to help us identify accounts that are only present in bad faith to political discourse: they are not who they claim to be, and their real goals are kept carefully opaque.

Cold War 2.0

We should consider our nation embroiled in a large international game of psychological warfare, or PsyOps as it is referred to in intelligence circles. The goal is to sow disinformation as widely as possible, such that it becomes very difficult to discern what separates truth from propaganda. A secondary goal is to sow dissent among the citizenry, particularly to rile up the extremist factions within America’s two dominant political parties in an attempt to pull the political sphere apart from the center. 

We didn’t really need much help in that department as it is, with deep partisan fault lines having been open as gaping wounds on the American political landscape for some decades now — so the dramatically escalated troll army operation has acted as an intense catalyst for further igniting the power kegs being stored up between conservatives and progressives in this country.

Luckily there are some ways to help defray the opposition’s ability to distract and spread disinfo by identifying the signatures given off by suspicious accounts. I’ve developed a few ways to evaluate whether a given account may be a participant in paid propaganda, or at least is likely to be misrepresenting who they say they are, and what their agenda is. 

Sometimes it’s fun to get embroiled in a heated “tweetoff,” but I’ve noticed how easy it is to feel “triggered” by something someone says online and how the opposition is effectively “hacking” that tendency to drag well-meaning people into pointless back-and-forths designed not to defend a point of view, but simply to waste an activist’s time, demoralize them, and occupy the focus — a focus that could be better spent elsewhere on Real Politics with real citizens who in some way care about their country and their lives.

Bots on Twitter have “Tells”

1) Hyper-patriotism

– Conspicuously hyper-patriotic bio (and often, name)  – Posts predominantly anti-Democrat, anti-liberal/libtard, anti-Clinton, anti-Sanders, anti-antifa etc. memes:


2) Hyper-Christianity

– Conspicuously hyper-Christian in bio and/or name of bots on Twitter: 


3) Abnormally high tweet volume

Seems to tweet &/or RT constantly without breaks — supporting evidence of use of a scheduler tool at minimum, and displaying obviously automated responses from some accounts. The above account, for example, started less than 2 years ago, has tweeted 15,000 more times than I have in over 10 years of frequent use (28K). Most normal people don’t schedule their tweets — but marketers and PR people do.


4) Posts only about politics and one other thing (usually a sport)

– Posts exclusively about politics and potentially one other primary “normie” topic, which is often a sport – May proclaim to be staunchly not “politically correct”:


5) Hates Twitter Lists

– Bots on Twitter have a strange aversion to being added to Lists, or making Lists of their own:


6) Overuse of hashtags 

– Uses hashtags more than normal, non-marketing people usually do:


7) Pushes a one-dimensional message

– Seems ultimately too one-dimensional and predictable to reflect a real personality, and/or too vaguely similar to the formula:


8) Redundant tweets

– Most obviously of all, it retweets the same thing over and over again:


9) Rehashes a familiar set of memes

– Tweets predominantly about a predictable set of memes:

Mismatched location and time zone is another “tell” — and although you can’t get the second piece of data from the public profile, it is available from the Twitter API. If you know Python and/or feel adventurous, I’m sharing an earlier version of the above tool on Github (and need to get around to pushing the latest version…) — and if you know of any other “tells” please share by commenting or tweeting at me. Next bits I want to work on include:

  • Examining follower & followed networks against a matchlist of usual suspect accounts
  • Looking at percentage of Cyrillic characters in use
  • Graphing tweet volume over time to identify “bot” and “cyborg” periods
  • Looking at “burst velocity” of opposition tweets as bot networks are engaged to boost messages
  • Digging deeper into the overlap between the far-right and far-left as similar memes are implanted and travel through both “sides” of the networks

SOTU word cloud: Make work, America. Obama OUT!

Some of the more interesting bits:

  • End of Afghanistan “mission”
  • Appeal to double down on middle-class economics
  • Increase availability and provide tax credit for quality childcare
  • Getting paid sick leave laws on the books
  • Wage equality
  • Raising the minimum wage — “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it.”
  • Lowering cost of community college to free
  • Asks companies to provide more job training, hire more veterans
  • Bi-partisan infrastructure plan to attract businesses / industries
  • Trade deals in Asia, Europe — “95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities.”
  • Precision Medicine Initiative — pursuing cures for cancer, diabetes; personalized health information
  • Free, open, and fast Internet
  • Colonizing space — “not just to visit, but to stay.”
  • Closing corporate tax loopholes brokered by lobbyists
  • Opposing Russia, supporting Ukraine
  • Opening relations with Cuba
  • Halting Iran’s nuclear program
  • Legislation around cyberattacks, identity theft, and child data
  • Pursuing climate change solutions, including getting China to commit to limiting their emissions for the first time
  • Free speech; religious rights; LGBT rights
  • Shutting down Guantanamo
  • Transparency on surveillance; civil liberties vs. counter-terrorism
  • Marriage equality
  • American values vs. partisanship
  • Plea for a better politics
  • Appeal to debate and reason on divisive issues: abortion rights, immigration, voting rights, police brutality
  • Mic drop — “I have no more campaigns to run.”
*where* are my dragons?!?!

President Obama’s tech-centered State of the Union: full text, and digital rights concerns – Boing Boing. p.s. cool visualization of Twitter mentions during the speech (via srogers @ cartodb)