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Bots account for nearly half of Twitter accounts spreading coronavirus misinformation, researchers say

Twitter tackles COVID-19 misinformation

About half of the Twitter accounts pushing misinformation about COVID-19 and calling for "reopening America" may be bots, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said Wednesday. The tweets appear to be aiming to sow division and increase polarization during the pandemic. 

"Conspiracy theories increase polarization in groups. It's what many misinformation campaigns aim to do," Kahtleen Carley, a computer science professor, said in a statement about the ongoing research. "People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides." 

She warned that the misinformation "will have a variety of real-world consequences, and play out in things like voting behavior and hostility towards ethnic groups." 

Since January, the researchers have collected more than 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 and coronavirus. They found that 82% of the top 50 influential retweets are bots, and 62% of the top 1,000 retweeters are bots, too. 

Bots have been spreading more than 100 types of inaccurate COVID-19 stories, such as information about unproven "cures." But they have largely dominated the discussions about "reopening America" and ending stay-at-home orders — issues that have led to real-life protests in states nationwide. Some of the tweets about reopening also spread baseless conspiracy theories, such as hospitals being filled with mannequins, or a supposed link between coronavirus and 5G towers. 

Experts suggest effective ways to combat coronavirus misinformation

The researchers said 66% of accounts discussing "reopening America" are possibly humans with bot assistants, and about 34% are definitely bots. 

Bots can usually be detected in accounts that were recently created and appear to be tweeting copy-and-pasted messages, or putting out a series of tweets that are timed to promote a certain topic. 

In addition, "Tweeting more frequently than is humanly possible or appearing to be in one country and then another a few hours later is indicative of a bot," Carley said.

The researchers have also started looking into posts on Facebook, YouTube and Reddit. 

Carley said the misinformation campaigns look like "a propaganda machine" and match "the Russian and Chinese playbooks," but the research have not yet determined who is behind the bots. China and Russia have already been detected in spreading misinformation about the pandemic. 

Carley advised that Twitter users "always go to authoritative or trusted sources for information."

Twitter in March announced new policies banning content that could "directly pose a risk to people's health or well-being" during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as tweets denying official public health recommendations, encouraging fake treatments, or claiming that certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to infection. The company this month said it would start alerting users when tweets make disputed or misleading claims about the virus. 

Twitter said in a statement to CBS News that since introducing its policies in March, it has removed more than 2,600 tweets and "challenged" more than 4.3 million accounts that were "targeting discussions around COVID-19 with spammy or manipulative behaviors."

"We're prioritizing the removal of COVID-19 content when it has a call to action that could potentially cause harm," Twitter said. "As we've said previously, we will not take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information about COVID-19."

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