The New Stranger Danger – Spotting a Russian Bot or Troll in Your Social Media
By: Lisa M. Hayes – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
In recent days there have been some interactions on Confluence Daily’s Facebook page where users have accused other users of being Russian trolls. Most of them we’ve left in place. Some of them have been so vitriolic, we’ve deleted them. While we don’t actually have an opinion about the validity of certain Facebook user accounts, it has brought up both an interesting question and an interesting dynamic.
The dynamic surrounds opposing views and discourse in online discussions between strangers. Real humans have oppositional opinions and like to share them online. Obviously, not everyone who wants to pick a fight over political and social issues is a Russian tool. However, bots and trolls count on the fact that people will interact with people they don’t know.
The question is: how do you know if the person you’re interacting with or reading posts and comments is real?
Short answer: You don’t – and we all know it.
Playing with strangers has inherent risks. However, with the 2016 election in the history books, we are just beginning to understand the magnitude of those risks. Social media has massive influencing power.
Below are some general guidelines and basic tools for identifying and avoiding bots and trolls.
First off, if it sounds like a bot or a troll, it’s probably a bot or a troll.
One of the linguistic signs which are characteristic of many known Russian accounts is the inability to use the grammatical articles — “a” and “the” — appropriately. The Russian language has neither.
For example, this post was made by Russian troll Instagram account Muslim_Voice in May 2016; notice the phrases, “I don’t want my kids to walk on streets with the sign like this,” and “to stop the Islamophobia and Xenophobia.”
Post from @Muslim_Voice, recovered by @UsHadrons. (Source: Instagram / Muslim_Voice)
It’s not extreme, but it’s noticeable, and if it’s a pattern, it’s probably a troll or bot. English is a second language for the drivers of these fake Russian accounts. Their posts and replies read that way. Sometimes the nuances are subtle, but if it just doesn’t read naturally, there’s probably a reason for that.
There is a lot of latitude for grammar and spelling on the internet. For that, personally, I am grateful. I get in a hurry. I make a lot of mistakes. However, when the grammar and spelling seem like a pattern and the topics of conversation are political, that would be a big red flag.
Trolls will often post very extreme political material or appear out of nowhere with exceptionally politically charged comments, willing to go on a comment war with anyone who opposes them, drawing more trolls into the discussion. Often troll accounts will be nothing but political garbage posts. However, these accounts have gotten more sophisticated recently. You can’t count on them being entirely partisan.
Just because a user has a few posts that make them appear to be “woke” doesn’t mean they are real. In fact, there is a newer generation of troll accounts that have no political stuff on their Facebook feeds – as in none. However, the troll will spread out online commenting on other people’s posts like wildfire. These trolls are way harder for Facebook and other social media sites to detect. It’s not illegal or particularly noteworthy to have a strong opinion.
Additionally, many fake accounts include occasional “personal” posts that make it look like a real person is driving the content. Trolls will post complaints about other people or their problems along with their political ramblings. They may even talk on their pages and posts about where they live in the U.S. or about being from the United States, which in and of itself might read sound a little out of context. Sometimes there are even fake family photos. It’s hard to believe someone posing with the fam in their Denver Bronco’s jersey would be fake – except the photos aren’t fake, they are just stolen.
Most trolls will use non-person pictures as profile pics and or banner pics. However, some will hijack real images from other user accounts. If you’re suspicious, you can research the origin of photos using this Google Reverse Photos tool. All images have an original source. Google is good at figuring that out. This tool is also useful for researching all those handsome single military men who are trying to friend you up to ask you for money.
The volume of posts on an account will tell you something too, particularly on Twitter, but to some degree also on Facebook and even Instagram. Real humans don’t have time to be posting every few minutes, all day long. Bots, however, are programmed post non-stop and at regular intervals.
Other patterns revealed how bots differ from human posts. In addition to distinctions in platform origination (mobile devices for humans vs. the web for bots), which is the best predictor of whether or not a tweet is from a bot, the researchers found the following:
Human tweets are more likely to be geo-located.
Bots retweet more often than humans do.
The most common type of bot is one that tweets news headlines without links to the original source of news.
Botcheck.me is a tool that uses, you guessed it, a bot to analyze the activity of a Twitter account to determine whether or not the account belongs to a real person. I played with this tool and a good half hour and have to say, it strikes me as extremely accurate, and it’s super easy to use. Just`enter a twitter account handle and wait about two hot seconds.
Facebook itself has a tool that will let you know if you’ve followed or interacted with fake Russian bot accounts. You can find that by clicking HERE.
When I used this tool, I came up with nothing. However, when I checked my child’s Facebook account with this tool, it popped up several, and that’s alarming enough to question whether or not I want my child on Facebook.
Generally speaking, you are more likely to cross paths with a Bot on Twitter and a real/fake human Troll on Facebook. However, there are both crawling every social media and social sharing platform including Tumblr, YouTube, Snap, and Insta.
All of this said, the best rule is common sense. In a world where we are all very comfortable with anonymous virtual interactions, it’s easy to forget followers and friends on social media may not be friends at all. In fact, they may not even be human. Treat everyone you don’t personally know the way you would treat a stranger in real life. Don’t engage in intimate discussions about anything, including politics. Don’t share personal information or personal views with a stranger. Your mama taught you that. Those rules still apply.
Think twice before believing anything you read online. Do your research. Check and double check your sources before you consider yourself informed. Most of all, if you don’t like the tone or attitude of an interaction with anyone online, don’t play with them, delete, unfriend, and ignore.
If you’d like more info about how all this nefarious stuff works and impacts the stability of our democracy this is a great article by PBS.
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