August 19th, 2020 by Zachary Shahan
Twitter is a dangerous place. And I don’t say that lightly. Perhaps you’ve seen news showing that certain countries and companies spend tens of millions of dollars funding fake accounts, spreading fake news (truly fake news), and even organizing real-world events with fake accounts. I’ve learned a bit about that stuff, but I think knowing about it still doesn’t fix the fact that fake accounts dominate or at least influence many Twitter conversations and trends.
With those clear findings in mind, there are certainly accounts I notice that are blatant examples. However, spotting blatant ones doesn’t mean you don’t get fooled by more convincing fake accounts. In fact, given the scale of fake accounts on Twitter as well as the presumed effectiveness for relatively low cost, you can assume that if you spend a bit of time on Twitter every day, you’ve considered fake accounts to be real people many times.
This is an article I might have written anyway, because I see suspect-looking accounts trying to steer conversations or inflame disagreements far too frequently — and, seemingly, being effective at it. However, something in particular caught my attention recently.
When someone (or some people?) broke into a bunch of high-profile, verified Twitter accounts a month or so ago — including the accounts of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and others — CleanTechnica’s account was apparently not high-profile enough (oh, me — sigh) and we were still tweeting. And we got swarmed with responses from various fake accounts. Perhaps their normal routines were disrupted because verified accounts across Twitterland were silent, but they had to work anyway. The whole thing just reinforced the point that Twitter is full of fake people trying to shape conversations.
It is easy to notice a fake account with 0 followers, a blank or ridiculous profile photo, an odd bio, and a history of clearly narrow and repetitive tweets (if you decided to spend time checking those things out), but some fake accounts were set up years ago and have even become quite popular. Even with a crappy job acting out a role and delivering a certain message on Twitter, some workers will be impressively intelligent and effective. An especially convincing fake account could find pictures of someone online (perhaps a public Facebook page with a ton of photos) and come across as very real. How would you know they aren’t?
But here’s one final note that is another reason I was compelled to write this piece. The thing is, if one tweet or one thread adjusts someone’s perspective on a topic (for example, a political candidate) just enough to achieve the overarching objective (for example, getting people to vote for someone in particular or not vote at all), then the practice is encouraged. All you need sometimes is something said the right way 100 times, or for your message to get in front of just the right person — a true social influencer — to trigger a retweet. Say, for example, that your role is to be a big Chicago Bull fan and develop a following around that, and then, once or twice a month, you put out a very strongly worded political opinion. Perhaps you’ve gained 10,000 followers who are very aligned with your basketball point of view and rather apathetic politically — that could be 10,000 out of 20,000 total followers, for example. How many of them might end up adopting your core political arguments? Who knows? But this kind of thing works enough that it is a popular method used on large scale for swaying public opinion.
All I can say at this point is: be as careful as you can to watch out for fake accounts (especially ones talented at stirring up flames), research topics in depth and from a variety of sources rather than forming opinions based on simple logic and strong claims made on Twitter with loose or no evidence, or just stay off Twitter altogether.
The same is largely true for Facebook, I presume, but I haven’t really spent time there in years, so I don’t know what it’s like these days. Reddit is surely a wonderful place for paid accounts with an agenda to thrive.
Simply doing our best individually is not going to solve the problem. These methods of social and political influence are funded because they are effective. Most people will not even put their guard up. Though, I do think the propaganda spread through social media is one of the greatest threats our society faces, so let’s all do what we can and help raise awareness of the issue.
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