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Social media can improve, muddy election campaigns

| Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

As the candidates for Pennsylvania governor debated for the final time last week in a television studio near Pittsburgh, their Twitter handles waged war online.

Neither Republican Gov. Tom Corbett nor Democratic challenger Tom Wolf send out their own tweets, relying instead on assistants to craft the messages. And that can make their social media accounts seem robotic at times, according to a computer application designed to unmask machines that pose as humans online.

“For a campaign, (they) have a staff of people; they use software; they try to release things at regular time intervals,” said Filippo Menczer, a computer science professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, who developed the “BotOrNot” app.

“They may be legitimate,” Menczer said, “but they still have some of these patterns that, according to our algorithm, are bot-like.”

Social media robots, or “socialbots,” have been programmed to block Twitter conversations, build consensus for otherwise unpopular opinions and attempt to alter human behavior.

Retailers often tap into these forces to sell products. Now candidates for public office increasingly are turning to social media to sway voters. The reasons are easy to understand: Facebook has 1.32 billion monthly users, and Twitter has 271 million.

It costs nothing for a national candidate to send a tweet that instantly reaches millions. With a little more effort, political supporters can use the platforms to spread rumors, undermine opposition or build a false sense of public pressure, computer analysts said.

“When the stakes are very high, a candidate will try anything at his disposal to try to win,” said Panagiotis Metaxas, a computer science professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who studies how political messages spread online through social media.

“In the gazillion things that propagate on the web, there will be some that are false,” Metaxas said. “If you want to have a good, well-working democracy, you better have an educated public that can actually understand what is a false advertisement and what is a false rumor.”

Hacker havoc

The campaigns for Pennsylvania governor appear relatively benign, computer experts who reviewed the accounts told the Tribune-Review. Campaign workers for the candidates said humans rather than machines maintain the Twitter accounts.

But other socialbots around the world have been programmed to wreak havoc.

During Russia's parliamentary elections in 2011, anonymous hackers used more than 25,000 fake Twitter accounts to send up to 1,846 garbled tweets per minute. The goal was to block popular hashtags that protesters used to organize.

Cybercrime and politics came together in that moment to make social media ineffective, said Vern Paxson, a computer security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We have long speculated that if you were a political actor and you had nerve, then it would be very appealing to use the rich set of services and products available on the underground to conduct your attacks, espionage or whatever,” Paxson said. “They're cheap, and they give you cover.”

Hackers in this country have used Twitter to make up fake, grass-roots movements, called “astroturfing,” to spread accusations about political opponents. During a U.S. Senate special election in Massachusetts, researchers found an attacker used nine fake Twitter accounts to send 929 tweets in just over two hours.

It worked. Real users retweeted the messages and reached more than 60,000 people.

The so-called Twitter bomb seemed to come from a group of concerned citizens, but it likely started with a single person trying to skew public opinion, Metaxas and a co-author found.

“These accounts can give the false impression there is some sustained effort ... when it's all fake,” said Emilio Ferrara, another researcher at Indiana University, where research into this area is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department. “It's only computer algorithms that are generating content and talking to each other.”

Fake followers

American presidential candidates benefited from fake Twitter followers — at least, until they were discovered.

Anyone can buy Twitter followers and Facebook likes online: 10,000 followers for $19.99 on eBay. But many candidates have found it more costly to be caught cheating.

Republican Newt Gingrich boasted of having more than a million Twitter followers until researchers determined that just about 100,000 appeared to be real people.

Nearly half of the followers at @BarackObama, the president's campaign account, appear to be fake, according to researchers at Barracuda, a computer security company in Campbell, Calif. Questions were raised during the 2012 campaign about Republican Mitt Romney's followers.

Corbett's campaign account has 7,575 followers; Wolf has 6,129. For each, about 6 percent of the users appear to be fake, Barracuda research scientist Jason Ding told the Trib, adding that those numbers are well below any level of concern.

No one can say whether any campaign, its supporters or even the opponents are behind fake followers. The Corbett and Wolf campaigns said they have not purchased them. There's no need, experts said.

“There's nothing beneficial at all about fake followers,” Ding said. “Zombie accounts don't engage in any conversation. They don't bring any value.”

Authentic social media audiences can be a powerful tool for marketers and politicians, said Michael Hussey, founder of StatSocial, a New York company that identifies online demographics. Politicians can learn about their followers and then target similar audiences to build support.

“These organic fans are a real asset,” Hussey said. “… When you fake it, it's not your real core audience, and so you can't effectively advertise any more on these platforms.”

Personality promoters

The campaigns do use social media to positively show the candidates' personalities. The Corbett campaign posted an image of a Pirates flag hanging on the governor's mansion when the baseball team made the playoffs. Wolf's aides posted old photos of him on Facebook for “Throwback Thursdays.”

“It's a very important part of our race,” Corbett spokesman Billy Pitman said. “We want to be timely with what we are putting out there for our supporters. It's not just for younger supporters anymore, but all ages are really using Facebook, Twitter, the whole gamut.”

Wolf's campaign spends money to advertise on Facebook because users are more likely to respond to the messages, said Ryan Alexander,

Wolf's digital director and a veteran of Obama's online presidential campaign. Twitter tends to be better for sharing messages with supporters and monitoring what's popular.

Because Wolf was not on Twitter before the campaign started, his staff avoids making it seem like he's on it now. Instead, they write tweets for the account in a third-person voice and mark his actual quotes with his initials.

Both campaigns have gone negative on social media, posting commercials and messages about holding each other accountable.

“I don't think social media is necessarily a platform exclusively for puppies and sunshine about the candidate,” Alexander said, “although we do that, too.”

Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or

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