Recently there have been accusations Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) & other Liberal Party MPs have been utilising small spam bot armies to game twitters ranking & trending system for their own benefit. I too jumped on that bandwagon, incorrectly tweeting that there were “damning revelations” that Hunt was buying followers & retweets. For this, I do apologise to Greg Hunt, & I figured the best I could do was write this article.
I sought clarification from Greg Hunt & received a prompt reply denying that he had engaged spammers to prop up tweets & his follower numbers. To be honest, I believe him. In the not too distant past, Mark Colvin (@Colvinius) has been the subject of a 20 000 spam follower “attack” of sorts, which not only was annoying, created uncertainty about Mark’s ethics, but cost Mark money to deal with.
So why does this happen? If Hunt is to be believed, which I do, neither Hunt or his office engaged spam bot sellers, which rules out the first reason this has happened: personal gain. The second reason you may be followed by a large number of spammers is someone, without your consent, has engaged spam bot sellers to prop your tweets & followers up, as Asher Moses put it, to increase the “virality” of a post. The last reason, as with Mark Colvin’s example, is to discredit the person whom the bots attach themselves.
Now that we have the basics covered, I’ll look a bit more into why these bots may have attached themselves to Greg Hunt’s account.
If Hunt did engage spam bot sellers to prop up his followers & tweets, the immediate effect would be minimal, however, over time social media analytics like Klout, Kred & PeerIndex would start to show a higher level of influence for Hunt. This may not seem relevant, however it would give weight to opinions posited by Hunt in the social media sphere. In the long term it would ensure that tweets from Hunt would feature as top tweets & trend a lot more often. Knowing how the trend systems work on twitter, gaming them is quite easy given a bot army at your disposal.
If it was an outside activist group (such as Menzies House, who I refuse to link to) organising the spam bot sellers, the outcome is the same as Hunt directly engaging said spammers. It’s all about gaming the system & increasing influence of Hunt on social media. There are definitely those in activist groups that support the Liberal party who are unethical enough to attempt something like this, & far enough removed for the fallout not to tarnish Hunt.
The final reason for doing this, to discredit Hunt, would make this a poor attempt. The bot army was small enough to not be noticed at all over the last month. If anything, this option is the least likely as there is only, according to Hunt, “one out of 1000 tweets has been retweeted widely using what I now know to be called a tweet bot”.
I, personally, think the bigger story here is that many of the spam bots aren’t just retweeting & following Greg Hunt, but many of the members of climate denial, anti-ALP/Green trolls that frequent #auspol. These bots do, from time to time, retweet random tweets with trending hashtags, however there seems to be a constant stream of LNP hate speech troll tweets being retweeted by these bots. Many of the people being retweeted have been using the #auspol hashtag, & trolling it, since after the 2010 election. The language has changed from “election now” to patently false & defamatory speech.
While I’m no anti-troll campaigner, it does become frustrating when both trolls & their spam bot armies take over a hashtag. Real information & news reports are relegated to the bottom of the pile, so to speak, & hateful propaganda becomes featured posts. If these activist groups are engaging in spammers to further their cause, it removes any legitimacy they may have had in the past.
I accept Greg Hunt’s explanation of what has happened & remind people of influence to keep their twitter accounts clear of spammers, not just so you don’t look like you’re padding your followers/retweets, but also as part of the constant fight against spamming that requires a collective effort from EVERYONE with a twitter account.
The end result of all this will never be finding out who did what, we are, after all, talking about 3rd parties engaging with criminal organisations to influence social media. At best we can hope to fire a warning shot across politicians & activist groups’ bows not to attempt this kind of political campaigning. What we don’t want happening is it getting to the level of Newt Gingrich back in 2011.
There will always be those who wish to influence the many by using nefarious methods.
To keep the record straight, I’d like to thank @geeksrulz & the many anonymous sources who’ve helped me with this post. You can read @geeksrulz Storify investigation here: The Desperation of a Liberal MP? The Russian spambots.
Here’s the email Greg Hunt replied with when I requested information:
Many thanks for your message.
Actually we have seen the report that one out of 1000 tweets has been retweeted widely using what I now know to be called a tweet bot. I want to reaffirm that as far as we are aware of over 1000 tweets, one has been subject to an unknown source retweeting from overseas accounts. We were not aware of this until we read this today.
Unfortunately we have no way of knowing by whom, why or under what circumstances.
In terms of your other questions:
- I take responsibility for my account. However the office does screen for and reject obvious fake users or trolls.
- If you could identify any fake accounts and verify this we will immediately take action to have them deleted from the followers list. Of course the nature of twitter is that it is difficult to identify users.
- No I have never paid for retweeting.
- No I do not have any links to MenziesHouse.
I would particularly note that of the over 1000 tweets I have issued, there has been just one that has been subject to a significant retweeting from some overseas source. This has occurred without my knowledge, control or consent. If you are writing I would assume that you would point out this fundamental point that such retweeting has only happened to 1 of 1000+ tweets.
Greg has responded to my article, cheers:
@sortius we have differed on many issues, but I appreciate the honourable way in which you have clarified a false and vaguely weird story