Over the summer, Twitter and Facebook suspended thousands of accounts they alleged to be spreading Chinese disinformation about Hong Kong protesters. However, it is difficult to distinguish real netizens from participants in a hidden influence campaign on Twitter. Franziska Keller, assistant professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, together with her research team found that astroturfing campaigns don’t solely rely on automated “bots” or bot accounts — contrary to popular media stories. By looking at digital traces left by astroturfing accounts, she found unique patterns that reflect what social scientists call the principle-agent problem. In addition, the agents’ actions may reflect the timing of instructions they got from the principal to achieve specific campaign goals at key campaign moments. True grass-roots activists, in contrast, usually react in a more organic fashion, with more variation in message contents and timing.
Read her opinion piece published on 28 October 2019 on the Washington Post.
Read the paper published on the Journal of Politcal Communication (open access until end of 2019).