What percentage of the tweets are retweeted

Coronavirus and Covid-19Twitter: 82 percent the 50 most influential Retweet accounts are Bots

Times of crisis are the breeding ground for false reports and lies on social media. An analysis by US researchers now shows that more than 100 of these false reports are circulating on Twitter and that bots are largely responsible for spreading these stories through retweets.

Especially when it comes to issues such as elections or crises, bots often try to get involved in discussions on social media and influence public opinion. The strategy behind it cannot be recognized immediately, as the computer programs pretend that there are real people behind the profiles.

It looks no different with posts about the new coronavirus: In a preliminary study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA, researchers found that bots are probably behind 82 percent of the top 50 most influential retweet accounts on Twitter. 62 percent of the top 1000 retweet accounts found bots. To this end, they have examined more than 200 million tweets since January 2020 that deal with the new coronavirus or Covid-19.

Twice as many bot attacks as predicted

From their experience with elections or natural disasters in the past, researchers had already predicted that such bot activities would occur in connection with the new coronavirus. However, the analysis now shows that there are twice as many bot attacks as assumed, explains Kathleen Carley, professor at the Institute for Software Research at Carnegie Mellon University.

Kathleen Carley and her colleagues came across tweets sent by bots that spread more than a hundred conspiracy theories about the coronavirus or alleged cures for Covid-19.

#reopenamerica is almost half controlled by bots

In the USA, for example, #reopenamerica is currently trending with tweets calling for the country to open up as quickly as possible. Here, too, the researchers came across bots: Their study showed that 34 percent of #reopenamerica tweets came from bots and 66 percent from people who used bots to increase the reach of their tweets.

It is almost impossible to prove who is behind the bot attacks, explains Deutschlandfunk Nova reporter Martina Schulte. Whether they come from home or abroad, whether foreign secret services could be behind them or certain political interests, that probably remains unclear. Therefore, it is still necessary to be vigilant and to check the trustworthiness of a source, according to the researchers.

"There's little you can do about bot accounts. If Twitter finds them and closes them, they'll just pop up under a new name somewhere else."
Martina Schulte, Deutschlandfunk Nova reporter

Indicators for bots include profile pictures copied from the Internet and the posting of a large number of tweets or likes, which the accounts distribute from constantly changing countries.

Editor's note: In this article, we report on the results of a study published in advance. We do not doubt the general statement of the study, but there is criticism of the specific numbers of bots, which we take seriously. The level of these bot numbers can be doubted, as it depends on the respective analysis method. We will deal with this aspect in more detail in the program.