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Bots tweaking pre-election Twitter trends in India, say US experts

Washington DC: In the run-up to the general elections, automated Twitter bots made a massive attempt to boost political hashtags, both in support of and in opposition to Prime Minster Narendra Modi, according to a research conducted by US experts.

The automated accounts were deployed on a massive scale on February 9-10, with small groups of accounts pushing out thousands of posts an hour, according to the team from the US think-tank Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

The accounts were domestic in origin and substance, researchers said.

While bots were used on both sides on February 9-10, the pro-Modi traffic was far more heavily manipulated than the anti-Modi traffic.

According to the team, the pro-Modi traffic far more heavily manipulated than any large-scale traffic flow the DFRLab has analysed as of yet.

"The incident highlights the sheer scale of attempts to manipulate Twitter traffic as India's main political parties head to the polls. It also underlines the extent to which social media more broadly has become an electoral battleground," the researchers wrote in a blog post.

Ben Nimmo, Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the DFRLab took to Twitter to highlight the findings.

"These manipulation attempts ranged from large to extreme," Nimmo wrote in a Twitter post.

"They were too clumsy to have much impact, but the sheer scale of the attempts on both sides is worrying, ahead of the election," Nimmo said.

While the scale of the activity was vast, its impact was rather muted given the relatively low number of followers of the accounts.

The massive scale of the attempted manipulation nevertheless bodes ill for the quality of online debate in India as the election approaches.

It remains important to be able to expose such efforts, researchers said.

The DFRLab scanned traffic on the hashtag #TNwelcomesModi, short for "Tamil Nadu welcomes Modi," which trended in India on February 9-10 and was mentioned over 777,000 times in two days. PTI

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