You gather a warm, friendly bunch of like-minded people around you. That is, after all, what humans do when building communities, whether it’s in the real world or online. You exchange views, share interesting information and act in a civilised, supportive manner. It’s all great fun. Then you say something slightly provocative and all hell lets loose. The dark side of Twitter can be alarming, disturbing, sometimes even frightening.
The dark side of Twitter – Flipping the bird
A hippy by nature, I err towards human kindness. When I Tweeted supportive messages about child refugees from The Jungle being offered a home in Britain, in the knowledge that most people in my Twitter community feel the same, I got well and truly flamed. I expected some negative reaction. I’m not naive. But I didn’t expect quite that level of hatred and intolerance. Crikey.
There’s nothing wrong with a good, clean, lively debate. But there’s a lot wrong with the kind of ugly, nasty stuff some people come out with, especially when they’re too cowardly to own their opinions. None of the trolls who responded negatively to my Tweets was brave enough to reveal a real name or include an actual photo of themselves.
Is it a troll or is it a bot?
There are proper trolls, of course, in the shape of real human beings who enjoy spreading hate. But humans are not always in control of these accounts. They’re often bots, and Twitter bots have long been harnessed to rig elections, silence activists, persuade people to hand over money, cheat at games, steal identities and spread misinformation.
As a troll it’s easy enough to set up a bot to notify you whenever someone mentions the subject you’re interested in, so you can flame them. But bots can automatically follow people and re-Tweet content as well as generate their own basic Tweets thanks to advances in machine learning.
In 2014 Twitter reported around 8% of accounts were fakes or bots – at the time that meant 23 million of ’em. More recently, four times as many Tweets were made by bots in favour of Trump compared to Clinton during the first presidential debate. And as many as 30% of pro-Trump debate Tweets were generated by bots.
Why do people turn to trolling, and why do they harness bots to help them? I honestly don’t know. I really don’t understand the value of being spiritually ugly, cruel, crude, ignorant and cowardly. Luckily, as long as you’re vigilant, you can minimise the impact of Twitter bots and trolls on your online life.
Can you weed out bots and trolls?
Some bots declare their status openly. Some pretend to be humans. Others are hybrids that combine manual input and automation. Luckily it’s still relatively easy to spot a bot-led Twitter account, and trolls always stand out from the crowd anyway. Here’s the kind of account to look out for:
- Those without photos of human account holders
- Accounts with ‘egg’ avatars and no detail in the bio
- Those with photos of semi-naked women
- Accounts without an associated website address
- Those with either no bio or a nasty bio
- Accounts that only re-Tweet
- Those that Tweet more than 50 times a day, day after day
- Accounts that Tweet with monotonous regularity throughout the day and night
- Those that Tweet 7 days a week
- Accounts that Tweet an endless stream of nasty stuff
The future? Sadly the main aim of bot design is to make bots indistinguishable from genuine people. These days they often include a real photo scraped from the internet and a genuine-sounding bio. Some even include URLs leading to actual websites. And when a botmaker takes over to Tweet a few real messages, which they sometimes do, it gets even trickier to tell real accounts from fakes.
Check your Twitter followers and those you follow
It’s tempting to automatically follow any account that follows you. It has even been held up as good etiquette. But it makes sense to carefully check all of the above. If you suspect that a Tweet, re-Tweet or reply comes from a bot, or is written by a troll, don’t engage with it. Block, mute or report the account instead… then move on.