Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Exposing Trolls -BotSentinal: Easy Way To Check For Twitter Bots

There's a lot of fake news out there.  Even misinformation campaigns.  Knowing what is true or false is getting harder.

So we must be ever vigilant about any bit of news - on the mainstream media, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in real life.  Here are some questions to embed in your brain for filtering out the crap.

  • Is it believable?
    • Does it support what I would like to believe? (Then I need to be especially careful)
    • Is it too strange to believe?
    • Is it so believable I accept it as true without thinking?  
  • Is it true?
  • Who said it?  (What bias do they have?  What's their record for lying?) 
    • OpenSecrets.org shows who funds organizations and their biases.  You can also just google the organization (Natl XYZ reputation) to find sites like media bias fact check to give you additional information about the media or organization
  • How can you verify it?
    • Google the basic idea and see if others are reporting it?  Are they all of a certain bias?  
    • Are there links to verify what they say?  Go to the links and see if they are reputable

So that's general advice.  But to specifically check on Twitter I'm recommending that you check out BotSentinal.  This link takes you to the BotSentinal page below.   Then go to the green link in the upper right hand

Then you get a popup window which let's you insert a Twitter account. (They use light grays which aren't showing up well in these screen shots, sorry.)  So, you put the Twitter handle you want to analyze in the box and hit submit.

Very quickly you get a response, like this one:

OK, so how do they figure this out?  They tell us that they aren't necessarily looking for actual bots.  They are looking for Twitter users who post like bots.  From their About Us page:

"We trained Bot Sentinel to identify specific types of trollbot accounts using thousands of accounts and millions of tweets for our machine learning model. The system can correctly identify trollbot accounts with an accuracy of 95%. Unlike other machine learning tools designed to detect “bots,” we are focusing on specific activities deemed inappropriate by Twitter rules. We analyze hundreds of Tweets per each Twitter account to determine if an account exhibit irregular tweet activity, engaging in harassment, or troll-like behavior."

For them, 'troll-like behavior' means behavior proscribed by Twitter.
"Researchers rarely agree on what someone considers a troll or what constitutes harmful bot activity, so we took a different approach when training our machine learning model. Instead of creating a model based on our interpretation of a troll or bot, we used Twitter rules as a guide when selecting Twitter accounts to train our model. We searched for accounts that were repeatedly violating Twitter rules and we trained our model to identify accounts similar to the accounts we identified as “trollbots.” Note: Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, geographic location, or frequency of tweets are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account."
What do the scores mean?
"We rate accounts based on a score from 0% to 100%, the higher the score the more likely the account is a trollbot. We analyze several hundred tweets per account, and the more someone engages in behavior that is troll-like, the higher their trollbot rating is."
When benefit of this is:
"We feel since trollbot accounts are likely violating Twitter rules, most Twitter users would want to report and avoid these accounts because they offer little value to meaningful public discourse."

So that leads us to ask:  What are Twitter Policies here?

Twitter policies are complicated.  I couldn't find a simple list. Here's a link to their General Guidelines and Policy page.  It's just a set of links to other pages which give more specific rules for what you shouldn't do on Twitter.  I'm trying to bring what seem like some of the more important ones together here.

1.  Violent threats policyWhat is in violation of this policy?
Under this policy, you can’t state an intention to inflict violence on a specific person or group of people. We define intent to include statements like “I will”, “I’m going to”, or “I plan to”, as well as conditional statements like “If you do X, I will”. Violations of this policy include, but are not limited to:
  • threatening to kill someone; 
  • threatening to sexually assault someone;
  • threatening to seriously hurt someone and/or commit a other violent act that could lead to someone’s death or serious physical injury; and
  • asking for or offering a financial reward in exchange for inflicting violence on a specific person or group of people.

Probably they should add "encourage other people to do any of these things."  There's a lot more nuance on the page, but this is the gist of the Violent Threats Policy.

Next has to do with the content of your Twitter name and profile.

2.  Abusive profile informationTwitter Rules: You may not use your username, display name, or profile bio to engage in abusive behavior, such as targeted harassment or expressing hate towards a person, group, or protected category.
While we want people to feel free to express their individuality in their profile names and descriptions, we have found that accounts with abusive profile information usually indicate abusive intent and strongly correlate with abusive behavior. The high visibility of profile names and descriptions also means that people might involuntarily find themselves exposed to threatening or abusive content when visiting a profile page.
When this applies
We will review and take enforcement action against accounts that target an individual, group of people, or a protected category with any of the following behavior in their profile information, i.e., usernames, display names, or profile bios:
  • Violent threats
  • Abusive slurs, epithets, racist, or sexist tropes
  • Abusive content that reduces someone to less than human
  • Content that incites fear"

3.  Glorification of violence policy   (You can see the bullet points here (I hope using the term bullet point isn't considered a glorification of violence) seem to be a collection of ideas from different people, and not carefully edited)
  • You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence.
  • Glorifying violent acts could inspire others to take part in similar acts of violence. Additionally, glorifying violent events where people were targeted on the basis of their protected characteristics (including: race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease) could incite or lead to further violence motivated by hatred and intolerance. For these reasons, we have a policy against content that glorifies acts of violence in a way that may inspire others to replicate those violent acts and cause real offline harm, or events where members of a protected group were the primary targets or victims.
  • What is in violation of this policy? 
    • Under this policy, you can’t glorify, celebrate, praise or condone violent crimes, violent events where people were targeted because of their membership in a protected group, or the perpetrators of such acts. We define glorification to include praising, celebrating, or condoning statements, such as “I’m glad this happened”, “This person is my hero”, “I wish more people did things like this”, or “I hope this inspires others to act”. 
    • Violations of this policy include, but are not limited to, glorifying, praising, condoning, or celebrating:
      • violent acts committed by civilians that resulted in death or serious physical injury, e.g., murders, mass shootings;
      • attacks carried out by terrorist organizations or violent extremist groups (as defined by our terrorism and violent extremism policy); and
      • violent events that targeted protected groups, e.g., the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide. 

(Current Twitter limits  These are not about what you say, but about how often you do things.)
"Please do not:
  • Repeatedly post duplicate or near-duplicate content (links or Tweets).
  • Abuse trending topics or hashtags (topic words with a # sign).
  • Send automated Tweets or replies.
  • Use bots or applications to post similar messages based on keywords.
  • Post similar messages over multiple accounts.
  • Aggressively follow and unfollow people.
Current Twitter limitsThe current technical limits for accounts are:
  •  Direct Messages (daily): The limit is 1,000 messages sent per day.
  •  Tweets: 2,400 per day. The daily update limit is further broken down into smaller limits for semi-hourly intervals. Retweets are counted as Tweets.
  •  Changes to account email: 4 per hour.
  •  Following (daily): The technical follow limit is 400 per day. Please note that this is a technical account limit only, and there are additional rules prohibiting aggressive following behavior. 
  •  Following (account-based): Once an account is following 5,000 other accounts, additional follow attempts are limited by account-specific ratios."

For non-Twitter users, direct messages (DMs) are where you send a non-public message to another Twitter account.  I think they have to be following you to do that.  1,000 a day seems like a pretty high number for a human.

And 2400 Tweets a day also seems way too high a limit for a human.  That's 100 Tweets an hour - assuming you never sleep.  Most people can only do this pace if they have programmed their computer to automatically retweet other Tweets, I imagine.  As I tried to find the thoughts of others on this, it appears much of this is about using Twitter as a marketing tool.  Or propaganda tool.

In any case, those are the behaviors that BotSentinal says it's more-or-less trying to track to determine its scores.

There's A LOT more rules and guidelines.  This link will get you to something like a Table of Contents of Twitter Rules.

Oh, one more thing.  I checked on Donald J. Trump's Twitter feed.  This raises questions about how well BotSentinal works.  Or maybe they just give the President a lot more leeway.


  1. I admit I use an old filter of my own: try to be civil even when one really, seriously, disagrees with another.

    It only took two women to kiss in a play toured by Out North Theatre in the late 1980s for the production to be picketed, funding attacked and venues closed to our little group.

    I can't forget how ideas and people can be repressed for 'good' reasons once one is free to be suppressed. Is sin fascism to some or is fascism, sin, to another?

    What is legally codified as 'wrong' and what is not finds its beginnings in social custom widely understood & accepted. It operates at a level far more pervasive than anything law, policy or corporate values can proscribe.

    This begs the question of what the public good is and how our words & actions fit that good order.

    As someone who has lived, in his lifetime, with the censorship of custom & law hanging over words & actions I would take to live as the gay man I am, I am seriously worried about attempts of the right and the left to decide what is 'acceptable' speech -- even more so, acceptable thought.

    I personally saw this struggle unfold in a student union meeting in London within a year of my arrival here. A student who was speaking was being heckled for his ideas. Finally, one angry student hectored him into admitting he was a fascist.

    At that point, other students yelled, 'No platform!' He was told to leave the room or police would be called to formally charge him with fascist speech.

    Yes, this happened. I was in this meeting as a student government rep. It was later explained to me that (we) Europeans know the horror of fascism too well and that Britain has law to prevent its spread once more. People can be barred from employment once proven to express or hold these views (yes, social media is expression), when adjudicated by employment tribunals.

    Further, any street preacher can be questioned by police for citing chapter & verse from Hebrew, Christian or Muslim holy texts damning LGBT people. They can be asked to stop. Even if it is not a call to action, it is enough be stopped speaking.

    In a writing class at an important public institution for the arts, I listened to my teacher tell us a story we were about to read had 'trigger words' (yes, the teacher was from the States) and warned off anyone who had been raped from staying to discuss it.

    What amazed me, is the work opened with the father violently killed by soldiers, later depicting the rape of his daughter. In this setting, the horrific killing was NOT a 'trigger word', only the rape. Yet both were Jewish.

    I am troubled by the Left in its aims to perfect the human being. Too, I have been troubled by the Right in its aims to construct inequality. Neither one wants to live with the consequences of the other's design.

    I look for guidance standing aside either. I ask myself what does it mean to be a CIVIL libertarian when we only defend that speech we find civil? Who defines it?

    Arguably, it must be those who gain & hold power to determine its definition.

  2. Ok, I note I wasn't entirely on-post on this, but as your comments moved towards Twitter content policies 2 & 3 -- and well -- Mr. Trump, I felt it became germane. (smile)


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