eyes on the U.S.

Seduction, Deception And The Rising Swarm Of 'Socialbots'

A single socialbot can create up to 20,000 fake profiles
A single socialbot can create up to 20,000 fake profiles
Nic Ulmi

“He’s not human. He’s a robot. Dante Pryor is a socialbot,” lawyer and series’ heroine Alicia Florrick says in the latest episode of the TV series The Good Wife.

“How could a robot defame your client?” the judge character asks her.

“It's designed to repackage comments and gossip by others and disperse it onto sites,” Florrick responds. “It's a computerized version of the worst part of human nature.”

These so-called socialbots, increasingly part of our Zeitgeist, are more or less the same in real life. Anna Jobin, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and at Lausanne University who is currently working on a doctoral thesis about our interactions with algorithms, notes that socialbots are ubiquitous in political campaigns, for example.

“An algorithm creates thousands of socialbots to exert influence or to drown divergent opinions,” she says.

The Mexicans, Russians and Syrians all have been accused of deploying armies of socialbots over the last three years. And Indiana University’s research group Truthy observed the use of this electoral weapon during U.S. congressional elections in 2010.

Online seduction

A socialbot is basically an automated computer program capable of creating profiles on social networks, complete with names and photos, before establishing connections with users, chatting, commenting on friends’ posts, and fueling discussions. It picks up on the living material uploaded by humans: attractive faces taken from the website Hotornot.com, elements of identity found on social networks, and clear-cut opinions gathered in the news or in tweets.

Websites such as 10minute-mail.com allow the swarm of “robots” to obtain disposable email addresses to sign up to networks. Other online services are used to get around the CAPTCHA obstacle — the sequence of bent letters and numbers a user must decode to “prove that you are human.” The rest, the formula that mixes a variety of data to simulate the behavior of an average person, is a matter of algorithms.

Most times, socialbots land on social networks as invaders. Their aims are political or commercial and are treated as unwelcome when discovered. But sometimes, the same site where they are active also creates them. “It’s the case for some dating sites,” Jobin says. “When there are more men than women among the users, the website may then deploy a large number of fake female profiles created by algorithms to increase the activity.”

She says that a single program can create up to 20,000 profiles. “These are malicious and deceptive manipulations,” Jobin says.

Hide and seek

Internet robots (or bots) are nothing new. When Amazon suggests purchases, it’s because an algorithm analyzed your previous purchases to determine your preferences. There is an attempt to influence your purchases, yes, but no fraud per se when algorithms are used in this way. But socialbots are, as the saying goes, a different kettle of fish.

“The website Netflix — an online video-on-demand service — has determined that in 60% of cases, consumers choose according to suggestions based on the history of their purchases,” Jobin says.

And that leaves the other 40%, those whose viewing choices wander off the beaten track, as targets. The question is whether it’s possible to steer these users as well? “Start-ups in the Silicon Valley are working on it,” Jobin says. “They talk about "serendipity algorithms'. In the case of socialbots, in a similar way, they create inconsistencies, irregularities, randomness, so their behavior seems more credible.”

It’s not just about deceiving users, but also the social network itself. “On the one hand, there are algorithms conceived to influence users without being discovered,” Jobin says. “On the other, there are algorithms made to detect these social algorithms. It’s a game of hide and seek.”

When the herd of socialbots and their human owners (the bot herders, or “robot keepers”) succeed, no one talks about it because their activity is undetected. The socialbots that make the most headlines are those that are created with the singular aim to show how a socialbot works.

Last summer, a Brazilian bot called Carina Santos managed to become a journalist, influencing Twitter by automatically recycling tweets from the newspaper Globo.

“Its creators — researchers at the Ouro Preto Federal University — wanted to show that the way Twitter measures influence is not reliable,” Jobin says.

Mission accomplished.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!