Celebrity Twitter accounts act a lot like bots, study finds

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The Cambridge team developed an algorithm that can accurately identify Twitter bots, and showed that some celebrity Twitter accounts act robotic.

It doesn’t take much to imagine that, beneath their fancy clothes and sun-tanned skin, many celebrities are actually androids. Their plastic smiles practically give it away. That may be hard to prove but a new study out of the University of Cambridge lends the idea some support — apparently celebrity Twitter accounts behave a lot like bots.

“When I first scraped through Twitter data I found automation,” Zafar Galani, a Cambridge PhD student who led the research, told Digital Trends. “I immediately wanted to see if bots exist on our social platforms because, if they do, that opens up a whole array of questions. What are they doing? Who created them? Are they bad? How do they impact our lives?”

To identify the Twitter bots, Galani and his team used Botometer, which analyzes a Twitter account’s data in search of bot-like activity. To their surprise, they found the system to be imprecise, so they took a manual approach and instead asked undergraduate students to review accounts, looking out for bot-like signals such as account creation date, the type of content posted, and tweet frequency.

The students analyzed a total of 3,535 accounts, determining that 1,525 were bots and 2,010 we humans. From there, the researchers created an algorithm that uses 21 features to pinpoint bots. Applying their algorithm to Twitter, they were able to identify bots with roughly 86 percent accuracy.

There are some clear signals that can be used to spot bots, such as the number of tweets from a given account. Galani and his team discovered that “celebrity” accounts with ten million or more followers share some of these features.

“Bots typically tweet a lot and upload content … in order to gain attention of their audience,” Galani said. “Celebrities too do exactly that, but instead of uploading depersonalized content, like bots do, they upload and share content and news from their daily lives.”

For Galani, it’s not much of a surprise that celebrity accounts act in bot-like ways. Indeed, seen from another perspective, perhaps it’s the bots that behave like celebrities.

“Bots exist, and they evolve, just like humans do, because we create them,” Galani said. “They behave — good or bad — as humans do. They are a manifestation of our online lives.”