Social media bots interfere in Asia-Pacific elections, too

Daniel Tkacik

Jul 11, 2019

Where do you get your news? A 2018 Pew research poll showed that 68 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from social media. But as we learned during the 2016 US presidential election, that can be dangerous because social media bots – which often look like real people – can spread fake news and deceptively sway your opinion

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University wondered: are bots also influencing elections in the Asia-Pacific? Of course they are, says a new study being presented this week at the 2019 SBP-BRiMS conference in Washington, D.C.

The ubiquity of these bot accounts is striking.

Kathleen Carley, Professor, Institute for Software Research

“The ubiquity of these bot accounts is striking,” says Kathleen Carley, a professor in the Institute for Software Research (ISR), director of the Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems (CASOS) Center, and a co-author on the study. “It’s become public wisdom that there are bots, but actually seeing the numbers on exactly how much buzz is artificially generated is striking.”

The researchers looked at three case studies in the Asia-Pacific: the 2019 Philippine senatorial elections, the 2019 Indonesian presidential elections, and the relocation of a US military base to Okinawa, Japan.

In all three case studies, bots ran rampant.

“Across the contentious issues we analyzed, between 10 and 30 percent of all captured Twitter users were identified by our algorithms as bots,” says Joshua Uyheng, a Ph.D. student in the ISR and a co-author on the study. “They were second only to ordinary non-bot accounts, but they outnumbered news agencies and government accounts.”

In the Philippine senatorial elections, in which eight open senate seats were fielded by the opposition party, a popular hashtag shared among actual human accounts supporting a group of candidates was #OtsoDiretsoSaSenado, translating in English to #TakeEightStraightToTheSenate. Bots countered that with #OtsoDiretsoSaInidoro (#TakeEightStraightToTheSewageSystem). 

But bots weren’t just monopolized by one political side or candidate. 

Now we’re seeing both sides utilizing bot accounts to create this false sense of engagement.

Joshua Uyheng, Ph.D. student, Institute for Software Research

“In the Philippine 2016 elections, most bots were just on one side of the political debate,” Uyheng says. “Now we’re seeing both sides utilizing bot accounts to create this false sense of engagement.”

The researchers observed similar trends in the Indonesian elections and the relocating of the US military base to Okinawa.

“Within and beyond the Asia-Pacific, potential for covert intervention calls for rigorous vigilance from a variety of fronts,” the authors of the study conclude in their paper. “We aimed to show how much vigilance might be implemented in practice.”