Fake Followers for Real Popularity: How Politicians in Europe Benefit from a Fake Following

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Nicole Wells, covers the new article by Bruno Castanho Silva and Sven-Oliver Proksch, University of Cologne: “Fake It ‘Til You Make It: A Natural Experiment to Identify European Politicians’ Benefit from Twitter Bots”

 

Lately, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been under intense pressure for failing to prevent electoral interference and manipulation of the democratic process. Malicious automated bots have been found to shape political discourse,  spread misinformation and manipulate online rating and review systems. In July of 2018, Twitter announced the largest purge of fake accounts to date. Political Scientists Bruno Castanho Silva and Sven-Oliver Proksch recently explored the effects of Twitter’s purge on the accounts of members of national parliaments in all 28 European Union countries. Castanho Silva and Proksch found that there was a significant drop in Twitter followers among radical right politicians and those with strong anti-EU sentiment. The findings of this study support the idea that the radical right benefit more from malign Twitter bots.

Anyone familiar with social media knows it can feel like a popularity contest. Crafting the perfect witty tweet is only half the battle for trending on Twitter. Those with a large online following tend to have the greatest impact on internet conversations. Accounts with a high number of followers signal trustworthiness and influence to many. Users can even go so far as to buy or farm Twitter bots to give the appearance of a large following and inflate their popularity. Accounts inflated by bots help to attract new followers, adding even more pull to users. Interference in democratic elections can occur through the spread of misinformation and manipulation of political discourse by malicious bot accounts.

Castanho Silva and Proksch’s findings are the first to empirically show that radical right parties benefit more than other parties from automated bots because they inflate their popularity and artificially give them more attention than if followers were gained organically” As news of the Twitter sweep emerged, authors Castanho Silva and Proksch were interested in which parties across the EU were affected. Were there parties that benefited more from the artificial popularity of automated Twitter bot followers? To find if this was the case, the authors collected in real time all tweets posted by national members of parliament across EU countries. The sample included around 1,900 members, those that tweeted at least once before July 2 and July 9 and once again between July 13 and July 20. From this sample they took the last available follower account before July 9 and after July 13. The results showed only a small reduction in the average number of followers from 35,022 to 34,604. Members were then classified into party families and split into three groups based on their level of popularity Researchers plot the member’s weekly follower count until December. Results show a sharp decline in the number of followers among the radical right on July 11, particularly with accounts that had 10,000 or more followers. Overall, radical right politicians with 50,000 or more followers saw an average loss of 5% from their accounts.

Castanho Silva and Proksch’s findings are the first to empirically show that radical right parties benefit more than other parties from automated bots because they inflate their popularity and artificially give them more attention than if followers were gained organically. The consequences of malicious bots could impart lasting damage on democracy if left unchecked. It creates an uneven playing field because more media attention can improve a radical right wing candidate’s electoral performance, even if part of this attention is due to fake accounts and bots.