Just to warn my innocent and happily naive readers, this post is not nice. It will make you feel hollow on the inside, angry at the situation and hopeless in the absence of any positive outcome. You have been warned.
Remember how I got into social-network-building and twitter-manipulating craft with a little help from my favorite Russian brothers? If not, read my first and my second post about their dark art. Roll forward a year, and I am now somewhat proficient in tinkering with different approaches and manipulations of gullible online people; how else do you think I blasted past 10,000 followers on Twitter and LinkedIn? Do you really think that I want to spend 6 hours per day twittering and sending out friend requests?
No, I am not a pedestrian simpleton that would do any of this by hand! Instead, I created, curated and refined an army of automation scripts that are doing all the heavy lifting for me! Let me walk you through the process of how the bot factory works — for fun and profit!
It all starts with automated scripts that generate social media accounts on any of social network platforms:
- The script pulls a name from an online random name generator
- It grabs a random photo from a profile pictures service
- It generates an email on one of many disposable email services
- It creates a mobile phone number on one of the SMS-able disposable VoIP services
With these four pieces of data, the seeding script can generate a fully-functional human-looking account, grab its API keys and add the newly-spawned baby into the ever-growing pool of my bots.
You noticed that all my bots are all females, right? One trick I learned from Vadim is to use female-only profiles and not bother to seed burly-looking grumpy males. As Vadim said it well: “No poultry farm breeds roosters. You need chickens, not roosters, to lay eggs!” Whatever the reason, I have statistical facts that female profiles attract over ten times more friends and followers than male profiles — and are the only social profiles worth breeding.
A bot with zero followers can post like a madman, yet nobody will care; the value of bot account increases with the number of followers that it attracts — and what is somewhat surprising is that breeding (generating followers) is the most effective when bots is not activated and is not yet spreading its own posts. Putting it plainly, people online prefer to follow quiet and non-opinionated females.
My scripts will track one or more specific hashtags and attach a bot to the stream of hashtag activities. Maria will — for example — react to hashtag #publiccloud, Monica will be triggered by #cloudnative, Anna will spring to life when someone uses #AWS hashtag in their posts. You get the drift. In the breeding phase, my bots are performing only three activities:
- They will like the post with the tracked hashtag (but not each and every one — that would be too obvious and would trigger the bot hunter-killer that would terminate bot profiles on the spot).
- They will retweet the post (about 20% of liked posts with the positive sentiment will be retweeted by one of my bots)
- They will start to follow a user, or send a friend request
The trick is to know how often to fire the follow/friend request as they are limited and therefore precious; if bot spams too many targets without reciprocal reaction from its targets, it will hit the platform limit very fast: Twitter allows no more than 10% spread between following and followed users. For example, if my bot has 6,000 followers, it is limited to follow no more than 6,600 targets (6,000 + 10%).
Well, I do have the fourth activity in my bot-breeding program: my bots will unfollow (or de-friend) any target that didn’t follow the bot back within a couple of weeks. That way the bot can increase room to follow and befriend more targets, increasing the probability of being followed back.
I have been very busy breeding my bots; I now command and control a formidable bot army that amassed over 100,000 followers total. In the activation phase I went through several generations of more-or-less intelligent algorithms, and then discovered the amazing chatbot frameworks. Oh man, that’s where the fun begins! If you are Microsoft dev, check Bot framework. If you work with AWS, check Lex And if GCP is the name of your game, try DialogFlow. Using chatbots to mimic humans online is amazing and deserves a separate post some other time!
Armies of bot accounts with swarms of followers are not just for fun, they have real value on the dark web. A bot that amassed over 2,000 Twitter followers, collected >1,000 friends on Facebook and got a least 500 friends on LinkedIn can be super-valuable as it can influence a sizable audience! Do you want to tell them how #AWS cloud services are absolutely amazing? You can seed that message in hundreds of variations, relentlessly and consistently, every hour of every day. Or, you can unleash your #AWS bot onto users that twit about #Azure! How about commanding #Azure bot and #AWS bot to collide, enter into a yelling match and then observe how their followers clash with each other? You can create fantastic echo chambers for a single issue and then smash the bots’ followers with some gruff opposing words:
Genya and Vadim taught me many coding tricks, showed me how to improve the efficiency of my bot breeding scripts, explained how Twitter BotHunter detect bots and how to run a breeding farm below its radar. I have to admit that I got personally attached to many of my nimble bots, so when a bot hunter-killer found and erased a small army of them during one of Twitter purges, I almost cried a little. “They are just algorithms!”, growled Genya, “Breed some more and make them look more human!” Yes, but Monica, Veronica, and Jessica were all so cute and dear to my heart, I miss them all so much…
The geeky part of this post is over, time for some harsh dose of unpleasant reality.
This fun is not… Fun.
Let me address the serious topic straight on: we all know that my Russian friends don’t do this for fun, right? RIGHT? They run their lair of social media breeding and harvesting machines for profit. Капуста. Бабки. Зеленые. You know, money. Lots of money. They run a breeding program among developers and then sell well-grown accounts with sizable followers population to the highest bidder — and they don’t really care what happens with accounts (or their followers) thereafter.
“They are used for APTs of some sort, I guess,” said Genya obliviously, shrugging. “We see our bots flaming-up emotional debates, placating people’s beliefs and amplifying marginal groups.” Ugh. APTs are Advanced Persistent Threats, a nasty weaponization of seemingly benign internet tools. ATPs are malicious abuse of all fun platforms that our aunties and gramps and neighbors use to exchange kitten pictures and corny jokes. If someone is using thousands and thousands of bots to drive aggressive APTs into the nation through virtually all social media platforms, what the heck is really going on here?
“The goal is simple, my friend,” explained Vadim with his matter-of-fact voice. “The goal is to erode trust in everything and anything that people used to trust. Sowing discord, fear and outrage against everything that this society takes for granted. People can’t trust the media, the police, the judicial system, the administration. Battalions of bots have attached armies of active followers and people think that their fringe opinions are strong and shared. Once you let left-leaning bots clash with right-leaning bots, their armies of agitated humans will argue and scream and fight with each other.”
Let’s be honest, this strategy is actually working. People can’t have any real arguments anymore, they lost the ability to have complex discussions. Friends are tired of arguing, for them it is pointless to even listen to an opposite opinion and it is impossible to consider striking a compromise. They prefer to stick to absolute positions, hurl insults at “the enemy” and then go back to their online echo chambers where armies of bots will gently strike their egos, approve their messages and agree with their myopic views. And then they will be sent out to the front line again. And again. And again. This is a digital version of the battle of Verdun. An endless meat-grinder with the sole purpose to drive the attrition and cause maximum damage.
Just look at the operating theaters where weaponized bots are actively deployed: vaccine supporters vs. anti-vaxxers. Minimum taxes vs. minimum wages. Social responsibility vs. individual rights. Diplomatic skill vs. military might. Pro-life vs. pro-choice. Market-driven healthcare vs. universal healthcare. This is just the first few items on the long, long, long list of theaters where bots are actively deployed, rotated and replenished — alongside with angered yet exhausted mobs behind them. Bots are just machines, but their followers are not…
Weaponizing the seemingly benign tools like Twitter and Facebook is a deviously smart strategy, creating a lose-lose outcome for societies that promote freedom of speech: if bot-amplified discord flourishes and incivility increases, it will eat the society inside-out. But if some power-at-be decides to abruptly stop and forbid the increasing societal rift, hatred, and polarization, such action would completely undermine and negate basic democratic principles and values of pluralism. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…
“But this will all stop, and we will go back to a normal state after elections are over, right? RIGHT?” The roaring laughter by both Genya and Vadim gave me a clear indication that I am a total dimwit. “Politicians are all temporary and will be replaced with somebody else someday, but the discord is not going to just disappear! If today you can’t speak to your neighbors and friends about politics, guns, faith or healthcare without fearing a shouting match and even a fist-fight, how will elections change your ability to communicate? If people can’t be nice to each other, nothing will go back to normal. This *is* the new normal.”
My bots are not for sale… Yet.
If I need to spell it out for you, I am bot breeder. Vadim and Genya showed me the ropes, they showed me the thrill of seeding, breeding and activating new accounts. They let me discover the amazing world of social manipulation, the wicked weaponization of social media tools and the lucrative financial benefits of a successful bot-breeding program. After they evaluated my bot army and their swarms of followers, I could easily sell my bots for a value of a new BMW. I am — of course — not the only breeder; I am not even a good breeder, according to Vadim! Think of Vadim and Genya like a digital poultry factory that sends unhatched eggs to hundreds of chicken farmers, teaching them how to grow millions and millions of birds, up to the point when they come and harvest the product — and pay the farmers. This is just one of many, many factories that employs many, many breeders that grow many, many bots that create many, many followers. Are you getting the full picture of this operation yet?
Except, I am allegedly a really lousy bot breeder and I decided to not sell any of my bots — yet. I am just too nice, I guess. While I found the journey into this social manipulation mesmerizing, I know I would have hard time sleeping if I’d know that my bots are now irritating some old lady in Kansas with persistent liberal taunts, or how my bots are driving some social activist insane with relentless #guns chants. Nah. My bots are still sleeping safely in my cloud storage and are still under my benign control. I am a nice guy, and so should be you.
Seriously, try to be nice to people around you; otherwise, you are playing it right into the hands of treacherous forces. Isn’t it weird to think that if you are offensive to somebody online, you are undercutting the stability of our own country? We might need to start controlling our public opinion in the pursuit of overall happiness for the preservation of our liberties. If that doesn’t sound Orwellian, I don’t know what does!
And if you disagree and really want to argue, I will instruct some of my bots to befriend you and then relentlessly fight your online persona till you’ll foam and growl in a bitter, hopeless rage. I recently upgraded Emma, Olivia, Isabella, Charlotte, Amelia, Abigail, Evelyn, and Monica; I lovingly added into their chat code some extra-pestering and super-irritating logical fallacies that will drive any sane person up the wall. My bots will react to your posts, jump at your twits, and diss your comments. My algorithms will find and befriend your parents and talk to them about your childhood oopsies. My code will chat with your friends and acquaintances about your deepest secrets. My scripts will send war-cries to the darkest parts of the web and will gather and hurl against you huge never-ending swarms of outraged internet trolls with pitchforks. And then I will unleash more bots upon you. And more. You, feeble human, you stand no chance against me in the era of distributed weaponized algorithmic bullying.
And then I will breed some more.