Stop COVID-19 bots

20 Mar 2020

This article by Professor Ryan Ko originally appeared in Contact Magazine.

Like many, I am getting updates about the novel coronavirus COVID-19 from social media sites like Twitter.

Scrolling through the comments on a post from Queensland Health (the official government health agency account for Queensland, Australia) sent me on an emotional roller coaster ride.

Some comments made me laugh, but two particular comments by Sharon and Sara (see below) made me feel angry, especially for Sara’s mum.

After a couple of seconds, my cyber security senses started tingling. Why do their accounts have an alphanumeric Twitter handle? Have Sara and Sharon always been so emotional across their accounts?

Introducing 'Sharon' and 'Sara'

Curious, I had a deeper look at their profiles and realised that they were not humans at all.

Rather, they were ‘bots’: fake social media accounts. These bots, and thousands of others, were generated by an automated service called a ‘bot campaign’. The bots plant comments into social media feeds, usually with a deeper intention to misinform or alter opinions of the general public. 

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Image: Getty Images / Jackie Niam