Computer Scientists Study False Information on Twitter and the Impact on 2012 Election

November 1, 2012

A new paper by Panagiotis T. Metaxas, professor of computer science and founder of Wellesley College’s Media Arts and Sciences Program, and Eni Mustafaraj, Hess Fellow and visiting assistant professor in computer science, investigates the role of social media in elections and how manipulation of social media can both affect a voters’ perception of a candidate and compromise the voters’ decision-making abilities.

“Each of us keeps a mental trust network that helps us decide what and what not to believe,” Metaxas and Mustafaraj wrote in the recently released article in the journal Science. “In times of political elections, the stakes are high, and advocates may try to support their cause by active manipulation of social media. For example, altering the number of followers can affect a viewer’s conclusion about candidate popularity”

Metaxas and Mustafaraj have studied “Google bombing” and discovered the first instance of political “Twitter bombing” and other manipulation efforts to determine how social media propaganda affects voters. “Google bombing,” a type of Web spam that has had an impact on past elections, is less effective now that search engines, including Google, have adjusted their ranking methods to defend against this kind of attack. However, “Twitter bombing,” which Metaxas describes as “creating a large number of Twitter accounts and sending a large number of unsolicited tweets to unsuspecting users within a short period of time,” can potentially confuse voters, especially if it is done shortly before the elections.

“Twitter bombing” and “astroturfing,” a term used to describe a fake grassroots movement, have become common. Metaxas and Mustafaraj stress that critical thinking is as important a skill now as it was ever, and it should be integral part of our education.

"We expect to see a surge in the last week before the elections, when there will be little time for debunking. In any event, people should be educated about how misinformation propagates, and they should be ready to use our personal old technology, our brain, to decide whether they should trust what they hear," Metaxas told IEEE Spectrum (read the article “Social Media Manipulation and the US Election: Twitter bombs, microtargeting and astroturfed journalists.”). Bloomberg News also spoke with Metaxas, read: “Voters on Social Media Should Dodge ‘Bombs’ Before Nov. 6.” 

For more information about this study, listen to a discussion of the work with Professor Metaxas on this Science postcast, or watch "Recognizing Network Manipulation: A short history and current challenges" a talk by Professor Metaxas given at Harvard's Center for Research on Computation and Society (CRCS) which covers a short history of Web spam and how search engines and online social networks have tried to cope with it over the years.

Read the paper, "Social Media and the Elections," which is now available in the Journal Science or read the press release.