It's no secret to anyone involved in social media circles that Twitter has a bot problem.
For years, users have complained about the impact of bots and fake accounts on the platform, and while various research reports have pegged Twitter's fake profile levels at between 5% and 15%, their presence is likely more significant than that, with researchers repeatedly pointing to massive swarms of bot accounts being used for malicious purpose - in particular, to amplify certain political messages, and drown out opposing views through mass retweeting.
Twitter's bot issue was highlighted once again this week, with the platform confirming that it had removed 20,000 fake accounts linked to the governments of Serbia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Honduras and Indonesia.
Twitter told The Guardian that these accounts "violated company policy and were part of a targeted attempt to undermine the public conversation”.
As per The Guardian:
"Of the accounts removed on Thursday, 8,558 were linked to the Serbian Progressive party (SNS) of Aleksandar Vučić, the president. The accounts had posted more than 43m tweets amplifying positive news coverage of Vučić’s government and attacking his political opponents. Twitter also removed a network of 5,350 accounts linked to the Saudi monarchy operating out of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Together they had tweeted 36.5m times praising the Saudi leadership or criticizing Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen."
This is a key, and common use of Twitter bot networks - earlier this year, a network of Twitter bots was found to be spreading misinformation about the Australian bushfire crisis and amplifying anti-climate change conspiracy theories in opposition to established facts. Those behind that campaign were never identified, nor did Twitter officially acknowledge this reported network. But it further adds to the perception that Twitter is still riddled with bot profiles, which can be mobilized, at any time, to amplify chosen messaging.
And such campaigns can be effective - late last year, a news story about a sick child sleeping on the floor of a Leeds hospital due to bed shortages at the facility went viral after a surge in claims from various Twitter accounts that the image was staged and/or entirely fake.
And those critical tweets bore some significant similarities.
The hospital hadconfirmedthat there was a bed shortage at the time, and that the story was, in fact, correct. But seemingly, a Twitter bot army had been employed to discredit the report, as part of a broader effort to ramp up support for the Tory party ahead of the UK election.