Blowing up in the social media minefield part two: Enter the bots

In a previous article, I wrote about how many public figures are finding out how viciously unforgiving the public sphere can be in the age of social media. Celebrities from Roseanne Barr to James Gunn have found their careers wrecked overnight by injudicious tweets. In Australia, the Greens have especially run afoul of the social media pack.

Like all minefields, social media is a deadly maze that doesn?t discriminate. Politicians from all sides have been caught out. As a friend of mine said, your enemies will troll through everything you?ve ever said and done online, and then go after you like a pack of hyenas.

But now a new weapon has entered the social media battle: the dreaded Russian bot. Quote:

Victorian Labor senator and ?social media enthusiast Kimberley Kitching has suddenly lost more than a quarter of her Twitter followers in what appears to be another purging of ?fake user? ?accounts by the social media group.

The deletion of 4500 out of Senator Kitching?s 17,200 Twitter followers on November 9 comes on top of Twitter removing 14,000 Kitching followers in July during a worldwide cull of suspicious accounts.

The latest purge adds to doubt about Senator Kitching?s firm ?denial in May that her account had been infiltrated by Russian ?bots? or ?sock puppets?.

At the time she was reported to have 26,000 Twitter followers ? unusually high for a novice backbench senator largely unknown outside Victoria ? including 7000 or 27 per cent with Russian as the default language. End of quote.

This has naturally raised concerns about security. Quote:

Cyber security agencies in Western democracies have taken heightened interest in the potential for social media manipulation in politics since allegations emerged that Russian-linked fake accounts flooded Twitter with false information during ?recent US and British election campaigns.

Senator Kitching?s Twitter follower list is already the subject of a referral to the Australian Cyber Security Centre for investigation following concerns raised by Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, who says he is worried about the risk of Twitter ?manipulation spreading to Austra?lian elections.

An ExportTweet analysis shows Senator Kitching?s list of Twitter followers ? culled in July from 26,000 to 12,000 ? briefly rebounded last month to almost 17,000 for reasons that are unclear. Then on November 9 the senator?s Twitter fan base experienced another dramatic fall, this time by 4500, or 26 per cent, to its current 12,700 followers.

According to the ExportTweet analysis, 16 per cent of Senator Kitching?s followers still have a Russian language setting, and 44 per cent of all her remaining followers have not tweeted in a year.

Sasha Talavera, a Swansea University professor who examined Russian-linked Twitter accounts allegedly used to interfere in Britain?s last election, identified in an analysis he conducted for The Australian that 7063 or 27.44 per cent of Senator Kitching?s original list of 26,000 followers had Russian profiles. End of quote.

But like all the hyperventilating about ?Russian bots? and American elections, are there any grounds for the panic? Most of the bot activity related to the American elections seem to have had a purely commercial rather than political motive. That is, the people behind them were merely intent on harvesting clicks and turning them into revenue, rather than sinister Kremlin operatives ?hacking? elections.

Nonetheless, it does raise the issue: when, not if, foreign actors weaponise social media, how well prepared are Australian politicians?

Apparently, not very. Quote:

Professor Talavera, whose figures tally with the 27 per cent identified by ExportTweet in May, said it was possible Senator Kitching had used ?bot networks? to promote herself, but there was also the possibility of a ?third party? not involving the senator.

Senator Kitching, a supporter of Bill Shorten, who backed her as a ?captain?s pick? to replace Stephen Conroy in the Senate two years ago, has maintained since May that only 3 per cent of her followers were Russian.

She has disputed any contrary analysis.

She appeared not to treat the matter seriously. She responded to emailed questions from The Australian by posting them on her Twitter feed and obscuring them with a personal note that expressed appreciation for ongoing interest in her Twitter account. End of quote.

Several Australian political figures, on both sides of the aisle, have shown themselves to be vulnerable to Chinese influence especially. Clive Hamilton?s Silent Invasion details the depth and breadth of Chinese influence-peddling in Australia. In stark validation of Hamilton?s thesis, three publishers specifically cited fear of reprisal from Beijing, in refusing the book. A raft of useful idiots in academia especially have chorused their condemnation of it.

China has used poor security in defence contractors to steal information related to the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Chinese agents are infiltrating Australian universities.

Hamilton writes about ?the astonishing level of naivety in this country about what China is doing here?. As Senator Kitching?s example shows, there is no shortage of politicians in Australia who are idiotically naive about the perils of social media.