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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.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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