Speed-tweeting human ‘bots’ are online
Some fall victim to Twitter’s vote crackdown
CHICAGO — Nina Tomasieski logs on to Twitter before the sun rises.
Seated at her dining room table with a nearby TV constantly tuned to Fox News, the 70-year-old grandmother spends up to 14 hours a day tweeting the praises of President Donald Trump and his political allies, particularly those on the ballot this fall, and deriding their opponents.
She’s part of a dedicated band of Trump supporters who tweet and retweet Keep America Great messages thousands of times a day.
While her goal is to advance the agenda of a president she adores, she and her friends have been swept up in an expanded effort by Twitter and other social media companies to crack down on nefarious tactics used to meddle in the 2016 election.
And without meaning to, the tweeters have demonstrated the difficulty such crackdowns face — particularly when it comes to telling a political die-hard from a surreptitious computer robot.
Facebook recently said it had removed 32 fake accounts apparently created to manipulate U.S. politics, efforts that may be linked to Russia.
Twitter and other sites also have targeted automated or robotlike accounts known as bots, which authorities say were used to cloak efforts by foreign governments and political bad actors in the 2016 elections.
But the screening repeatedly and erroneously has flagged Tomasieski and users like her.
Their accounts have been suspended or frozen for “suspi- cious” behavior, apparently the frequency and relentlessness of their messages.
When they started tweeting support for a conservative lawmaker in the GOP primary for Illinois governor this spring, news stories warned that rightwing “propaganda bots” were trying to influence the election.
“Almost all of us are considered a bot,” said Tomasieski, who lives in Tennessee but is tweeting for GOP candidates across the U.S.
The actions have drawn criticism from conservatives, who’ve accused Twitter, Facebook and other companies of liberal bias and censorship.
It also raises a question: Can the companies outsmart the ever-evolving tactics of U.S. adversaries if they can’t be sure who’s a robot and who’s Nina?
“It’s going to take a really long time, I think years, before Twitter and Facebook and other platforms are able to deal with a lot of these issues,” said Timothy Carone, who teaches technology at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the company has said it identified and challenged close to 10 million suspected bot or spam accounts in May, up from 3.2 million in September.