Twitter has played a more central role in this election than in any other before it. It's been a place where both Donald Trump — who takes particular pride in his tweeting skills — and Hillary Clinton have spoken as candidly about issues in 140 characters as they have at the podium. It's served as a place for accusations and fact-checking alike, and has resulted in one of the most repeated and retweeted statements of the election:
But, while you can trust that a candidate's verified account voices their opinions and those of their staff, many of this election's other tweets are suspect. According to ABC News, 400,000 computer bots are behind a staggering 3.8 million election-related tweets — or, 20% of election tweets sent during the final months of the race. Researchers from the University of Southern California conducted the Twitter study, published yesterday, in which they conclude that bots can distort online conversations with the "the spreading of misinformation and unverified information." (Bots were probably behind last week's false claims about being able to vote for Hillary Clinton via text.)
In response to a request for comment, Twitter spokesperson Nick Pacilio said, "Anyone claiming that spam accounts on Twitter are distorting the national, political conversation is misinformed." But the fact remains that these bots are still there, unless they are reported as spam and taken down by Twitter. Bots can be difficult to identify, but the researchers say that some characteristics to look out for include: Constant tweeting, few followers (but many followees), and a less-personalized account. You can also plug the username into the useful online tool BotOrNot to check if its tweets come from a computer or a human. Of course, Twitter isn't the only online space affected by bots. Reddit, too, has faced its fair share during the election. "Bots can influence people, especially on a site like Reddit, where the more upvotes you get, the higher up you appear in feeds," says Ben Parr, the cofounder of chatbot company Octane AI. "Reddit is known for having pro Trump bots that push up topics." Parr also says that you can expect election-related spam bots to stick around, at least for the foreseeable future. Tonight, as polling results start to roll in, be sure to get your news from verified accounts. Because on election day, especially, bots are expected to be alive and tweeting.