A random search on Twitter has uncovered a massive bot army obsessed with Star Wars

Another reason to hate BB-8. Picture: Disney

Somebody has amassed an army of Twitter bots which do nothing but quote passages from Star Wars novels.

Computer science senior lecturer Shi Zhou and University College London research student Juan Guzman took a random sample of 6 million English-speaking Twitter accounts — about 1% of all users.

The sample they chose tweeted 843 million times over the duration of the study period. 20 million of those tweets were tagged with their location.

And when they were plotted on a map, Zhou and Guzman found something unusual:

Image: Zhou and Guzman/UCL

The red areas represent more than 300 tweets clustered in the same location, and appear as they should — over large population centres. Nothing surprising there.

But the blue dots represent 1-9 tweets. Note how uniform the squares of 1-9 tweets are.

Image: Zhou and Guzman/UCL

Zhou and Guzman did, and the fact they fitted perfectly along latitude and longitude lines.

The blue dots represent about 23,820 tweets all up, from 4942 users. From those, Zhou and Guzman identified 3244 bots — because they were all tweeting lines from from Star Wars novels such as:

Luke’s answer was to put on an extra burst of speed. There were only ten meters #separating them now. If he could cover t

And only lines from Star Wars novels. And one quote per tweet.

The tweets were shared in June-July 2013 and also shared these characteristics:

  • The bots never retweet or mention any other Twitter user.
  • Each bot has created <= 11 tweets in its lifetime.
  • Each bot has <= 10 followers and <= 31 friends.
  • The bots only chose ‘Twitter for Windows Phone’ as the source of their tweets.

“It’s amusing,” Jon Crowcroft at the University of Cambridge told New Scientist. “But it’s relatively pointless.”

Some, in this era of fake news and manipulating the media, might disagree. Twitter certainly does, and has made a mission of weeding out bots.

Zhou and Guzman say if you extrapolate the result from the sample, it fairly translates to a possible botnet comprising of more than 350,000. All controlled by a single botmaster.

The study says Twitter bots “have attracted a lot of attention because they can pose serious threats to the health and security of Twitter as a popular public social and communication service”.

They can be used for spamming, gaining fake followers and falsely promoting “trending” topics. Or manipulating public opinion.

The bots really loved Luke. Image: Zhou and Guzman/UCL

Like it or not, social media has the power to influence the most important aspects of our lives. Facebook was taken to task for it last year, with some all but accusing it outright of engineering Hillary Clinton’s loss.

For some reason, Twitter avoided the same scrutiny.

Yet on its first try, a single random study immediately found a botnet that’s been lurking unnoticed since 2013, which was conceivably sending out coordinated tweets from 350,000 sources.

“Relatively pointless”?

You can read more on the study here.

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