On 3 September, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main opponent Martin Schulz faced off in an election debate that many viewers panned as more of a duet than a duel, a far livelier effort was underway on social media. People on Twitter started using the hashtag #verräterduell, which translates as “duel of traitors” and mirrors the claim by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland party that both Merkel’s mainstream Christian Democrats and Schulz’s Social Democrats have “betrayed” the country.
Yet much of the venom may not have been fueled by angry voters, researchers say. Instead it looks like the work of bots, or fake social media profiles that appear to be connected to human users, but are really driven by algorithms.
With Germans going to the polls on 24 September to elect their new parliament, experts are watching closely for signs of automated propaganda on social networks. So far, bots seem less active than they did in the recent presidential elections in France and the United States, where some commentators believe Russia was seeking to boost right-wing candidates. But researchers sensitized by past elections are making the German contest a laboratory for studies of how to recognize bots and trace their effects.
Most researchers concentrate on Twitter, which does not prohibit automated accounts. The platform also makes 1% of tweets freely available through a programming interface—and, for a fee, it opens up 10%. After analyzing tweets from 14 million users worldwide, Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute in Los Angeles, estimated that up to 15% of Twitter profiles—a whopping 50 million—are bots. And most are creatures of politics….