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Uncovering fake news bots
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Having the right information at the right time can make you rich or save your life, but in today’s grim reality, the information field all around the globe is poisoned with fake news. Nowadays, people are making their careers producing false information and spreading it online. But even that is not enough: In addition to real people, this industry also employs thousands of social media bots to maximize effect. At this year’s Security Analyst Summit, researchers from Recorded Future gave a talk on ways to expose those bots.

Why fake news bots are still a thing

Nobody likes bots, but social media companies really hate them, because bots make social networks less attractive to real people. For example, Twitter periodically identifies massive numbers of bots and banishes them (leaving real people whining about losing followers). That means social networks have their own ways of detecting bots. But their efforts are not enough to wipe the bots out completely.

Social networks don’t disclose their algorithms, but it’s safe to say their effort is based on detecting abnormal behavior. The most obvious example: If an account tries to post a hundred posts a minute, that’s certainly a bot. Or, say, an account only retweets stuff from other accounts and never posts anything on its own, that’s also most likely a bot.

But the creators of bots are constantly learning to modify their bots so that they can bypass social media services’ techniques. And social media services cannot afford to have too many false positives; mistakenly banning a lot of real people would cause outrage, so they have to be cautious. That means a certain number of bots go undetected.

To dig deeper into how the bots behave, Recorded Future chose a characteristic to highlight a certain group of bots — in this case, talking about terror events that are mentioned only on Twitter. If an account does that, it’s probably a bot (or it is retweeting a bot). Now let’s take a look at what else these accounts have in common.

How fake news bots behave

First of all, the terror events these accounts were mentioning actually happened, and the articles about them were hosted on somewhat respectable websites (websites that did not demonstrably spread fake news). One small but important detail: The events happened years ago, something the accounts did not mention. Linking to respectable media keeps Twitter’s bot-detection algorithms placated, and that is why the mastermind behind the bots chose that strategy.

Second, in the case of this particular bot network, the account owners pretended to be based in the US but were talking mostly about European countries. Having this information allowed Recorded Future to identify more than 200 accounts that bore that similarity and dig deeper into the other similarities and connections between them.

For example, researchers drew an activity pattern and realized that a lot of those bots were active only during certain coinciding periods of time. Some of the accounts were banned this May, but then new ones with the same behavior were created — and they are still operational.
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