Little evidence bots, trolls influencing federal election campaign on social media: researcher

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – As federal party leaders work to secure your vote, one researcher is looking into how much influence social media bots will have on the fall vote.

Ahmed Al-Rawi, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, examined a popular hashtag — #cdnpoli — as part of his work.

“It’s regarded as one of the most popular ones for people who would like to talk about Canadian politics in general,” Al-Rawi explains. “So I’ve been following up and looking, examining this hashtag for a while and collecting tweets only referencing this hashtag.”

By the end, Al-Rawi says he had about 1.7 million tweets that referenced #cdnpoli, and began looking at how many bots were within this data set.

“Bots are automated accounts that are usually programmed by humans in order to send hundreds, sometimes thousands of messages a day,” he explains. “To my surprise, I didn’t find any significant number of bots available among those top users. In fact, very few ones were bots.”

Al-Rawi used a digital tool to look at the top thousand users, those who tweet the most or who are the most active.

There was, however, another discovery.

“What I found more disturbing was the fact that a discourse or a discussion about bots is happening on Twitter,” Al-Rawi explains. “What was weighing is that many legitimate users were accused of being bots, only probably in my view, to discredit them and maybe to silence them in the end.”

His advice to anyone entering the political discourse on social media is to not believe everything at first glance, and to cross-check everything.

It’s tough to take the time to do that, but Al-Rawi notes that only then can you weed out the trolls and bots from more legitimate voices.

“It’s very hard for ordinary people, as well as researchers, to understand whether there is a troll or a bot,” he says.

Al-Rawi adds it’s a political tool used by players around the world, accusing anyone with an opposing view of being part of an electronic army.

-With files from Alison Bailey

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