How to spot online propaganda

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - While pundits speculate on whether a democratic wave is coming in this year's mid-term elections, digital experts are certain political bots will once again flood social media with propaganda. Real people will get sucked-in.

"it's so easy to just click 'like'," said Andrew Ricci of Riccon Strategies.

The social media expert and veteran campaign operative said every candidate wants their social media message to go viral - and get seen by millions of potential voters. That, he said, used to take skill and a bit of luck. But he said times have changed, "it's possible to make things go viral within minutes."

Fake accounts - or bots - run by humans and computer code can cheat the systems used by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The bots amplify opinions - positive or negative, pushing them to the top and potentially into your feed.

"I think that the biggest issue is that a lot of times people like outrageous news," Ricci said of real users contributing to the feedback loop, "they like things that are unbelievable."
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Ricci argues a candidate can only ensure their content is accurate - what a potential meddler does is out of the campaign's control. The best tool to stop the bots may be users like you.

"There are some ways we can spot them, and there are some ways we can report them," said Betsy Paige Sigman, a professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business.

She said there's no perfect test to determine if an account belongs to a bot. But, she said you should be wary of accounts that:
" Posts hundreds of times a day - and at regular intervals
" Don't have many connections, but content that receives tons of clicks
" Have no picture or one that an online search reveals belongs to someone else
" Outlandish statements and odd user names
We asked whether Americans should be concerned that bots will sway outcomes in 2018. "I'm not too concerned about that," she said, "but as we all know, elections are sometimes decided by just a few hundred votes."

There are digital options to try to spot a bot. Though they're not perfect either.

The website BOTCHECK.ME can spot check a particular Twitter account. It considers patterns, content, and user reports in its assessment of whether a human is in control. uses a simpler formula - attempting to determine an account's legitimacy - and how many of its followers are real. The site suggests more than 13-million of President Donald Trump's followers are questionable. Bernie Sanders' campaign account has fewer, but a higher percentage.

That does not mean the politicians sought out the bots, but it does suggest you can count on the messages of most high-profile elected officials to be artificially inflated online.

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