in Meddling, Politics, X-Geek

Russian agents pollute social media

A few weeks ago, I shared my long-held skepticism about the effectiveness of influenza vaccines and was pleased to see a friend chime in in agreement. My skepticism of flu shots is based on science – that the effectiveness of the mass-produced vaccine is abysmal and has been for years. My friend’s skepticism is based on something less reliable, it seems, because she shared a post from the dubious news site, It quotes an unnamed CDC doctor:

A CDC doctor has warned this year’s “disastrous” flu shot may be responsible for the deadly flu epidemic sweeping the country.

“Some of the patients I’ve administered the flu shot to this year have died,” the doctor said, adding “I don’t care who you are, this scares the crap out of me.”

“We have seen people dying across the country of the flu, and one thing nearly all of them have in common is they got the flu shot.”

Scientists were worried this year’s flu season was going to be rough and their fears have been proven well founded. The flu season is off to a record-breaking start, with the CDC reporting widespread flu activity from coast to coast. Many health officials believe that 2018 will ultimately be the worst flu outbreak that we have experienced since 1918.

The CDC doctor’s experience of patients dying of the flu after receiving the flu shot is sadly not uncommon. Eight Santa Barbara County residents have died from the flu in the last fortnight. Seven of them had the flu shot.

This seemed like a pretty radical claim, so I searched the Internet for it and … nothing. The unnamed doctor obviously does not exist. YourNewsWire is the place Russian trolls work to perfect their craft.

On Twitter the other day, I read an interesting post on the Al Jazeera account about immigration or something similar. A number of other Twitter users chimed in, including a few posting incendiary comments about immigrants in general and Muslim immigrants in particular. The comments in question were in broken English and did not directly respond to anyone who challenged the poster. To my jaundiced eye as someone who’s been on the Internet for decades it is unquestionably a bot, designed to inflame the fear some people haven’t let go of.

Now, I can easily tell a troll when I see one, but I worry about others who can’t. According to a study by the University of Southern California, 48 million Twitter users are bots. That’s 15% of Twitter’s 319 million users. Says McClatchy:

In February, Twitter announced it had 319 million monthly active users worldwide, or just slightly under the number of every person in the United States.

But of those 319 million, as many as 48 million aren’t actually real, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California: They’re just software programs, designed to do everything a normal person on Twitter would do, including following other accounts and liking and retweeting certain messages.

Those accounts, called “bots,” can range from accounts dedicated to alerting their followers about emergencies to political advocates intended to boost the numbers of a programmer’s preferred candidate.

“Many bot accounts are extremely beneficial, like those that automatically alert people of natural disasters … or from customer service points of view,” a Twitter spokesperson told CNBC.

The “many bots are extremely beneficial” line above cracks me up. There aren’t 48 million beneficial Twitter bots, that’s for sure!

Selina Wang of the San Francisco Gate says Twitter might not want to clean up its bot problem to keep Wall Street happy:

… cracking down on bots puts Twitter in a vulnerable position with Wall Street. Investors have penalized the company for failing to get more users. The more that Twitter cracks down on fake accounts and bots, the lower the monthly active user base, the metric most closely watched by Wall Street.

“I think there’s a business reason why Twitter doesn’t want to be good at it. If you have fake accounts and you’re valued around active users, the valuation will be adjusted,” said Scott Tranter, partner at Optimus, a data and technology consultancy.

Fortunately, there’s a tool called which can analyze a Twitter user’s posts and make an educated guess if it’s automated or not. It’s good for an occasional check for botness but what is needed is a systematic way of rating Twitter users so that some trust can be restored.

I also came across the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), which has issued reports showing how certain Twitter hashtags have been artificially boosted by Russian Twitter bots. For instance, it shows the “schhumershutdown’ hashtag has been pushed by these Russian bots.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy tracks Russian bot activity

All this revealed activity has me even more convinced that Russia was behind the Mitt Romney Facebook fake likes activity I uncovered during the last election.

I am glad groups like the ASD are out there calling out bullshit from Russia. I home fellow freedom-loving hackers like myself will take up the call to help shut these bots down.

Putin has done a great job screwing up his own country. Let’s keep him from screwing up ours, too.