Kiwi programmed Twitter bot 'James' influences real Americans

Meet James.

Ever been taken in by a bot who sounded like the real thing?

You're not alone and according to a recent social-engineering experiment, social networks and thus movements can be influenced by these social bots.

The Web Ecology Project, based in Boston invited three teams to programme social bots - fake, interactive identities - who could mimic Twitter conversations. One of the teams, consisting of cyber security specialists from New Zealand, programmed a bot called JamesMTitus.  The Project then picked 500 real users with a core of cat lovers to be infiltrated.

JamesMTitus was programmed with a series of generic responses and was set to systematically test the network for what tweets received the most responses and to then engage with the most responsive users.

After a week the teams were allowed to fine-tune their bot's programming and launch secondary bots to take down their competitors, with JamesMTitus being targeted by a British secondary bot.  When one user confronted it, the JamesMTitus gave vague responses, such as 'Right on bro', evading detection and garnering 109 followers in two weeks.

In the experiment, all three teams' bots inflitrated the centre of network, according to network graphs.

The experiment highlights results found by the Web Ecology Project during the 2009 Iran post-election protests, that one person controlling a social identity or group of identities can shape social network architecture, and thus social movements themselves.  The Project found that only a handful of people actually accounted for most of the Twitter activity during the protests.  Many will be familiar with company employees posing as customers touting products on web boards, but according to The Atlantic, social bots are a new scale, reaching thousands of people at practically no cost.  The worry is the personal data people freely give out on social networks, which bots can harvest for future commercial or hacking use.

A week after the experiment finished, The Atlantic reported, Anonymous hacked the email accounts of cyber-security firm HBGary Federal.  The hack revealed that the United States Air Force was soliciting for bids in June last year for something called "Persona Management Software", or a programme that would create multiple fake identities for the government to trawl social-networking sites for personal data.  The data would be used to gain credibility and circulate propaganda.

The Web Ecology Project has a spin-off group, Pacific Social, which is planning future experiments in social networking such as the creation of connection bots, which could bring together groups of like minded people.

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