Is that Twitter account a bot? Researchers make app to find out

The app looks at public Twitter data to identify phony accounts

Researchers' app looks at different signals to determine an account's bot-ness.

Researchers' app looks at different signals to determine an account's bot-ness.

They spread lies. They push products you don't care about. They make unpopular people look popular. Sometimes, they take over your machine with malware.

Twitter's got bots, and researchers are fighting back. At Indiana University in Bloomington, researchers have developed an app, called "Bot or Not," designed to identify accounts on Twitter that are controlled by insidious robots or software.

You can't trust everything you see on Twitter, even when it's posted by actual people. But the researchers' tool was developed as part of a larger effort to raise awareness about how much more easily misinformation can be spread when it's done by bot accounts that feed off each other.

Plenty of bots on Twitter are benign -- they may automatically tweet out links to research papers or product updates.

But then there are the bots that mislead, exploit and manipulate online conversations with rumors, spam, misinformation and slander, researchers say.

"It's political astroturf," said Fil Menczer, an informatics and computer science professor who directs IU's Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research.

Some Twitter accounts may be programmed to post messages with links to fake news stories, and then cyclically repost the links, making them go viral. Others may spread misinformation to hurt a political candidate.

Beyond Twitter messages themselves, "bot accounts comprise a crucial part of misinformation campaigns on Twitter," Menczer said. "We know they exist, but are there millions of them? Tens of millions? Tens of thousands? We're not sure," he said.

There are also companies that sell Twitter followers, which are not always real. Newt Gingrich was scrutinized some years ago over his allegedly phony followers.

The "Bot or Not" app seeks to weed out at least some of the bot accounts. The app, which can be accessed on IU's site, lets users type in any Twitter handle, and its algorithm looks at over 1,100 features to determine how likely it is to be a bot on a 100-point scale. Users must authorize the app to query Twitter on their behalf.

It's all based on public Twitter data from the site's API (application programming interface). Patterns such as length of time between posts, the scope of the account's own follower network -- even the sentiment of the posts -- is all factored in to make a determination.

Some Twitter accounts already deemed to be fakes by the tool? Apparently Justin Bieber attracts bots: @JusBieberPhotos ("the official Justin Bieber photo Twitter account") and @StanBieberfan were called out by the researchers.

The app is very much in beta. Researchers are currently working to refine its algorithm, and figure out which signals are really the best to include, results that will likely appear in a future paper.

Their fear is that spammers will adjust accordingly. "It's an arms race," Menczer said. "Bots will get smarter in the process."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags social mediainternetmalwaretwittersocial networkingdata protectionanalyticsscamsspywareInternet-based applications and services

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Zach Miners

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?