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Twitter Bots Drown OuT Russian Protestors
January 9, 2012 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 16 comments

#триумфальная (Triumfalnaya) is the hashtag of the protesters of Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square, where thousands of Russians have turned out against the government following widespread reports of ballot stuffing and voting irregularities in the last Russian election.

As a communication tool to coordinate protestor activity, #триумфальная became one of the most-tweeted hashtags on Twitter. It’s also become the target of twitter bots blasting automated messages to drown out the tweets of the real activists, reports Brian Krebs on his blog, KrebsonSecurity

These bots post a range of national slogans and crude language using the same hashtag as that used by protestors. With a rate of up to 10 messages per second, they have succeeded in swamping human Twitterers with thousands of messages like the one below.

Russian IT security maven Maxim Goncharov says, “these recent attacks show how the same technology can be used to for one side of a debate to attempt to silence the other side – the equivalent to one group having loudspeakers.

Whether the attack was supported officially or not is not relevant, but we can now see how social media has become the battlefield of a new war for freedom of speech.”

Goncharov has analyzed some 2000 suspicious accounts broadcasting this twitter chaff. He discovered, in true spy-vs-spy fashion,  that the accounts are sleeper bots, activated back in July in anticipation of something, perhaps anticipation of post-stolen-election protest, and once protestors settled on their tags, turned on with auto-botic speed to spam strategic hashtags with anti-protestor or pro-Kremlin sentiments.

Kremlin bigwigs are contributing to the Twitter Bot blast with their own personal contribution, too. A nasty little tweet from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attracted press attention, “It has become clear that if a person writes the expression ‘party of swindlers and thieves’ in their blog then they are a stupid sheep getting f****d in the mouth .”

Well, at least he used a smiley face. But since my paranoid cup runneth over when it comes to Russian politics and Twitter in general, I’m suspicious that a guy as cautious as Medvedev would send something like that, or that he would let his people do it. Could it have been an infowar counter attack by a protestor who hacked the President’s account?  (Additional insights from a Russian context would be interesting Anyone?)

Fueling my paranoia, @translationguy was hacked last week, in case you were wondering about my sudden enthusiasm for vacation rental properties. Shatterbox quotes Twit Cleaner claims that 50% of all tweets are auto-generated.

Some are malevolent, as we’ve seen with #триумфальная, but others are kind of amusing.  My current favorite  rogue twitter bot is @StealthMountain, which is a Twitter Bot that corrects misspellings of  “Sneak Peek” when spelled “Sneak Peak.” Every time someone in the Twittervers makes that error, @StealthMountian, sends a correction note, “I think you mean ‘Sneak Peek’.” This helpful hint  inflames some readers who respond with invective, which is then automatically favorited by the bot. Funny.

What’s the tip point before Twitter is trashed by spam same as our email inboxes? The most effective spam will be that which is unrecognizable as auto-generated. Since we are talking tweets, it’s going to be harder to distinguish between man and machine tweet, since the more we act like machines (140-word tweet instead of a telephone call, for example) the easier it is for machines to act like us, to steal our time, or worse, to steal our freedom.

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