The pro-Donald Trump camp used automated account activity on Twitter, including bots, “up to five times as much as Hilary Clinton supporters” and employed it aggressively, according to new research made public on Friday.
This resulted in crowding out Clinton messaging on Twitter during the US presidential election.
The research by academics at the universities of Oxford, Cornivus and Washington says a growing number of political movements are employing both people and bots to shape political conversations and influence election results.
Bots can deliver news and information but also undertake malicious activities, while passing off as human users, a statement from the universities said.
Using a sample of 19.4 million tweets during November 1-9 cthat contained political hashtags such as #CrookedHillary or #DraintheSwamp, the research showed pro-Trump activity increased over the period and was used far more than the pro-Clinton camp, from a ratio of 4:1 during the first debate to 5:1 by the time of election day.
Pro-Trump traffic effectively “colonised” pro-Clinton hashtags in tweets that had combinations of neutral and pro-Clinton hashtags, the working paper said. So, by the time of the election, 81% of the highly automated content involved some form of Trump messaging.
The research by Philip Howard from Oxford, Bence Kollanyi from Corvinus and Samuel Woolley from Washington revealed that Trump’s supporters’ use of highly automated accounts was “deliberate and strategic”.
As early as the evening of 8 November, as Trump’s victory became clear, traffic from automated pro-Trump activities suddenly stopped. By contrast, during the debates, the researchers estimated that highly automated accounts generated between 23% and 27% of Twitter traffic about politics related to the election, and this dropped to 18% during the lead up to the election.
From their sample in the lead up to voting day, the researchers showed the overall level of pro-Trump Twitter traffic, at 55%, was much higher than the volume of tweets containing only hashtags associated with Clinton, at 19%.
A “fairly consistent proportion” of the traffic on associated hashtags (such as #ImWithHer, #strongertogether, #CrookedHillary and #SendHerToJail) was generated by highly automated accounts.
Researchers identified automated accounts as those producing at least 50 tweets a day with political hashtags associated with Clinton or Trump or the election. They found that pro-Trump campaigners and programmers “carefully adjusted the timing of their tweets during the debates”.
While activity from pro-Clinton and pro-Trump automated accounts occurred around the same time during the first debate, by the third debate the tweets with pro-Trump hashtags were going out much earlier than the pro-Clinton tweets.
The pro-Clinton camp increased their use of highly automated accounts over the campaign period but never reached the level of automation behind the pro-Trump traffic, the research showed.
Howard, professor of internet studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “We can’t say who was behind the highly automated pro-Trump accounts but they were purposeful, thoughtful and deliberate about when to release messages, what those messages should be, and what their targets were.
“The political success of movements using a high level of campaigning on Twitter suggests that social media are a very powerful tool in politics.”