Now we know that people who tweet about the same things constantly, or retweet without any original thoughts, don't just suck — they might also be trying to spread biased information on Twitter. Georgia Tech computer scientists identified four common behaviors of the worst "hyperadvocates" — not necessarily those pushing the most extreme views, but the ones repeating the same messages OVER AND OVER.
"We rely on things like Twitter to filter down the increasing amount of information out there,” Associate Professor Nick Feamster, who directed the Twitter-propaganda study, told me. "If we don’t configure the filter in the right way, or follow the wrong people, we can potentially get some pretty bogus information."
According to the researchers, hyperadvocates on Twitter typically do the following:
1. Tweet. A lot.
2. Retweet without much original commentary.
3. Rapidly retweet other people.
4. Coordinate with random people to tweet the same message at the same time.
They analyzed almost 100,000 tweets during the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Nevada and the 2011 debt ceiling debate, using the respective #nvsen and #debtceiling hashtags. Starting with the tweets of politicians whose stance was clearly known, they traced their followers and divided users into two camps of opposite ideologies. Then they looked for patterns in their tweets based on behavior, not content.
"In the case of tweets, the messages are so short that in order to get meaningful content you often have to follow a URL," says Feamster. "But if you look at the behavior of how spammers send messages, things can pop out pretty well."
Feamster argues that Twitter users are more easily manipulated — it's different than people watching Fox News or reading The New York Times where underlying biases are more apparent.
The holy grail of this research would eventually be something like a Klouchebag score, or at least the ability to single-out the biggest Twitter hyperadvocates and then blacklisting them. But for now be wary of users that demonstrate these types of propagandistic Twitter activity.