Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Intelligent Machines

How to tell if you’re talking to a bot

The five best ways to detect fake social-media accounts.

Twitter recently took drastic action as part of an effort to slow the spread of misinformation through its platform, shutting down more than two million automated accounts, or bots.

But Twitter shuttered only the most egregious, and obvious, offenders. You can expect the tricksters to up their game when it comes to disguising fake users as real ones.

It’s important not to be swayed by fake accounts or waste your time arguing with them, and identifying bots in a Twitter thread has become a strange version of the Turing test. Accusing posters of being bots has even become an oddly satisfying way to insult their intelligence.

Advances in machine learning hint at how bots could become more humanlike. IBM researchers recently demonstrated a system capable of conjuring up a reasonably coherent argument by mining text. And Google’s Duplex software also shows how AI systems can learn to mimic the nuances of human conversation.

But technology might also provide a solution. In 2015 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ran a contest on Twitter bot detection. Participants trained their systems to identify fake accounts using five key data points. The resulting systems are far from perfect (the best worked about 40 percent of the time), but the efforts reveal how best to spot a bot on Twitter. We may come to rely on these signals much more.

  1. User profile
    The most common way to tell if an account is fake is to check out the profile. The most rudimentary bots lack a photo, a link, or any bio. More sophisticated ones might use a photo stolen from the web, or an automatically generated account name.
  2. Tweet syntax
    Using human language is still incredibly hard for machines. A bot’s tweets may reveal its algorithmic logic: they may be formulaic or repetitive, or use responses common in chatbot programs. Missing an obvious joke and rapidly changing the subject are other telltale traits (unfortunately, they are also quite common among human Twitter users).
  3. Tweet semantics
    Bots are usually created with a particular end in mind, so they may be overly obsessed with a particular topic, perhaps reposting the same link again and again or tweeting about little else.
  4. Temporal behavior
    Looking at tweets over time can also be revealing. If an account tweets at an impossible rate, at unlikely times, or even too regularly, that can be a good sign that it’s fake. Researchers also found that fake accounts often betray an inconsistent attitude toward topics over time.
  5. Network features
    Network dynamics aren’t visible to most users, but they can reveal a lot about an account. Bots may follow only a few accounts or be followed by many other bots. The tone of a bot’s tweets may also be incongruous with those of its connections, suggesting a lack of any real social interaction.

Keep up with the latest in robots at EmTech Digital.
Don't be left behind.

March 25-26, 2019
San Francisco, CA

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Online Only.
  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.