Voters on Social Media Should Dodge ‘Bombs’ Before Nov. 6

Photograph by Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

A delegate poses with a red, white and blue top hat in the Facebook photo booth during the RNC in Tampa, Florida.

Updated 5:50 pm EST

Dodge the Google bombs. Outsmart the Twitter bots. Stay off the astroturf.

Most Web users don’t realize it yet, but these are tasks they face in the 12 days left before the election to avoid being duped by social media manipulators trying to skew candidates’ apparent popularity online.

So predict two Wellesley College professors in a Science magazine article that surveys social media manipulation tactics in the political world. Online propaganda efforts have the potential to impact voters’ views and are “underappreciated by the press and the general public,” the researchers say.

Social media users “should be aware” of how manipulation works and “be prepared to search for the truth behind the messages,” Panagiotis “Takis” Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj write.

The computer scientists highlight Google bombs — manufactured associations between search terms and Web pages — as a better-known but largely outdated tactic. When the search term “miserable failure” led people to the Web site for President George W. Bush in the early 2000s, for example, it caused a stir that prompted then-Director of Consumer Web Products Marissa Mayer to defend Google’s search result generation method in 2005.

Now Twitter has bombs, too.

“Twitter bomb is the act of sending unsolicited replies to specific users via Twitter in order to get them to pay attention to one’s cause,” write Metaxas and Mustafaraj, who predict that many Twitter bombs will be “launched within days of the election.” Well-crafted political Twitter bombs have been known to reach over 60,000 Twitter accounts in one day, they write.

Twitter bombs can be created by “bots,” which are programs and fake Twitter accounts that can follow or retweet messages from a real person’s account (in this case, a politician’s) to give the impression of popularity and credibility — unless human users recognize the propaganda in play.

Twitter bombs and bots comprise what computer scientists call “astroturf” efforts — a fake grass-roots movement that gives an impression of social media users’ support. Astroturf is found wherever the real stuff grows, including on Facebook, where fake accounts can “like” someone or something to drive up the numbers, for example.

Metaxas emphasized in an interview that manipulation and the promotion of misinformation are “by no means” the major digital tactics being used by political campaigns. Most political social media activity is above-board, and social media sites do try to stop manipulation from occurring. (Read more about political #hashtag wars here.)

Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser said in an interview that it’s unlikely Twitter users would vote based on a politician’s number of followers. It is “questionable” that spam and manipulation have an impact on “real people,” he said.

“If there’s any change, it’s indistinguishable from the momentum that the platform has generally,” he said about manipulative activity during the campaign season.

Based on previous elections, though, Metaxas said he knows both parties are manipulating social media to some degree, especially in congressional races where manipulation can fly “under the radar” more easily. He predicted instances of manipulation will peak  in the coming days.

“That’s where it matters,” Metaxas said in an interview. “When you have elections, misinformation can do its damage before the correction has time to get it straight.”

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