Chesapeake, VA
English & Journalism


Video games, Literature, Military History, Journalism, Photography, Movies

About Me

Adventures in Bot-Hunting

December 3, 2017

It’s an exciting albeit intimidating time to be studying the field of journalism. We’ve got a president who — regardless of how highly some of us may regard him — hasn’t precisely been a friend to the press and constantly outs himself as an opponent to the very notion of factual verification. He has flat-out denied, for example, that there was any sort of meddling in the 2016 presidential election on the part of the Russians, despite mounting and conspicuous evidence to the contrary. He’s boasted that he would’ve won the popular vote if not for “3 million” illegal voters, which is difficult for me to characterize as anything other than a deliberate, bold-faced lie or perhaps a senile flight of fancy.

What I’m getting at is that when you’re a journalism student who’s obligated to read several newspapers daily to keep up in your classes, you learn a lot. I’ve learned that the inescapable truth: A prodigious amount of the “information” that’s out there — much of it created and shared by the executive government — is “fake news,” instead of the news media outlets on which the president routinely casts aspersions. Americans should be concerned for our freedom to access information during an administration so hostile to truth. (I wrote an op-ed for the school newspaper on this very subject, and you can check it out here.)

The fake news epidemic is sufficiently timely that UR’s Journalism department saw fit to offer a class on it this semester, which I’ve been taking over the past few months. It’s a seminar called “Fake News and Real Journalism,” taught by Professor Thomas Mullen.

The class has covered quite a bit of ground. We’ve studied the history of untrue journalism, stretching way back to the “yellow” journalism of the nineteenth century. We’ve read material from fake news sites, both domestic ones such as InfoWars and those promulgated by people from foreign countries attempting to sway the election. We’ve learned how to tell a story or advertisement that manipulates the truth from the real McCoy, which isn’t always as easy at it seems.

My most interesting assignment for this course was looking for a “bot” on Twitter. Professor Mullen sent us a guide on how to track down a bot. Using those steps, we were to pin one down and then present our findings to the class.

Detective work! I was into it. Here's what I found and how.

You’ve probably heard of the infamous Twitter bots. Essentially, they’re computer programs that run Twitter accounts like bona fide human beings. They typically tweet a lot of hashtags promoting a particular political candidate and a heap of fake news sites. People wanting to interfere in the election used them generously. Therefore it’s best to know how to spot them so you know not to take the articles and “info” they share seriously.

Naturally, I began my search by, erm, searching on Twitter. Knowing about the upcoming election for governor, my first inclination was to search for “#Gillespie,” because I figured there would be a bot spamming information in support of the conservative candidate. I wasn’t disappointed.

I found the account @Scott_Trade_Adv, which supposedly offers its followers tips on trading. (Whatever that meant.) As you can see, the account was a proud supporter of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, and also concurred with the president the America needs to be made great again. It’s heavy on the politics, but the trade advice was hard to find. That was the first clue.

Second, the account’s posts about trade looked like spam, and when I clicked its links, it sent me sites in Arabic and other languages to sell me Bitcoin and input my bank account information. I’m pretty sure just wanted to scam me out of my money. It’d post the links in reply to seemingly random tweets, too.

Sure, the scams and flagrant use of consecutive hashtags is immoral and a bit… garish, but that doesn’t necessarily make ol’ Scotty a bot. To learn more, I decided to see when the account was created. I found that it shared a pro-Trump article from a fake news site with five minutes of its creation — a bit suspect, no?

Lastly, I noticed that the account would tweet *exactly* the same messages as a few other accounts, all of them with names that had something or other to do with “trade.” An example is this @Binary_Trader2_ character:

All this, along with an analysis of Scott Trade Advice’s followers that revealed most of its base was from outside the U.S. — a bit odd for an account that “loves” GOP candidates so profoundly — convinced me that I had a bot on my hands. I further concluded that the group of trade accounts probably came from the same “bot farm,” created by someone who wants to sell people Bitcoin or otherwise scam them out of their money with untrustworthy links and promises of “winning big.” To lure victims, the bots were also programmed to spam right-wing links and hashtags.

The assignment was both fun and worthwhile. I’m grateful to attend a university where such unconventional assignments are commonplace! Skills like weeding out bots will certainly prove to be useful as our contemporaneity becomes increasingly digitized.

—Hunter, University of Richmond Class of 2019.

Call me Hunter, or the chosen one, or Chuck Norris, or the Lone Wanderer from Vault 101, or anything else that's awesome because it would really boost my self-esteem. However you choose to style me, know that my intention is to give you a firsthand impression of life here at the University of Richmond. Late study nights, Saturday evening shindigs, extracurriculars, that sort of thing.

And yes, it has occurred to me that this is an About Me and I've neglected to tell you much about me. So I'm from Chesapeake, Virginia, a place just south of Norfolk that's large enough to be a county but isn't because reasons. There's not much to do in Chesapeake other than going for a dip in the Great Dismal Swamp (ill-advised) or head to a neigboring town to hit the beach, and I think that's part of the reason I spent most of my earlier childhood holed up in my room reading books or playing Playstation. 

I branched out in my high school years, though, and I've developed affinites for genealogy, running, film, and photography. I am not a man of many talents, though among them include the remarkable power to turn my thumb all the way backwards, the ablility to tell you almost everything you'd ever want to know about the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which unfortunately has been declared non-canon, thanks to J.J. Abrams), and the astonishing skill to cook Minute Rice in 58 seconds. My playlist includes mostly oldies, and my favorite movies all came out before I was born. So you might say I'm a bit of a hipster. I've even got my own snazzy red Polaroid camera, which is practically a license to hipster in this day and age, right?

So, yeah, that's me. In conclusion, read on! Hope you enjoy my blog posts!

Why UR?

I'm not a very decisive person. During my senior year of high school, I envied the kids who were certain straight from the get-go where they wanted to go to college. I had applied to several great schools that I thought could offer me a great education, but I had trouble picking which one was the best fit for me. I constantly held debates against myself, weighing the pros and the cons of each school in my head and occasionally and occasionally audibly voicing my concerns a la Gollum: "How about this one?" "No, no, too big. And too far away. Going back and forth to home could prove to be a real bummer." "Good point, but look at their alumni network! They could hook you up with a job fresh out of graduation!" "Ah, true, but check out these student reviews online. You really want to go to a place with this reputation?" "Do you believe everything you read in those reviews?" "Of course I do. They can't put anything on the internet that isn't true." And so on and so on. I still hadn't made a decision by mid-April, so the jury was still out on where I was going just two weeks before the deadline. Pressure from my parents and peers to choose just kept piling on heavier and heavier. Around this time I went to a Richmond Scholars visit, which afforded prospective students who'd been offered scholarships from the University the chance to get a glimpse of life as a student here. The visit was really what sealed the deal for me. The beautiful campus was a joy to explore even in the surprisingly sweltering spring heat. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class, which wasn't very big. Richmond's small class sizes allow for intimate discussions as opposed to drawling lectures and make it rather easy to develop close relationships with professors. I've found that most of them encourage you to meet with them in their spare time, something that might be more difficult to do at a larger institution. While at the Scholars visit, I talked with my host for hours. He gave me a bare bones, down-to-earth explanation of what he thought of Richmond. And I know it's a total cliche, but there's one thing he told me that I really think rings true here at Richmond and life in general: It can be a great and rewarding experience, but only if you put in the effort to make it one. Bottom line, I think Richmond gives students the resources needed to make their college years more than worthwhile, moreso than any other school I checked out. We've got top-notch academics to satisfy any hungry mind, we've got a plethora of extracurriculars to enjoy, tons of chances to broaden our horizons (literally and figuratively), and of course, we've got the chow at D-Hall. All that's really what made me want to spend the next four years of my life here.