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By Timothy Graham, Tobias R. Keller
In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.
The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.
Bots, Trolls and Trollbots<p>The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different "<a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02235-x" target="_blank">master narrative</a>."</p><p>Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter's early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.</p><p><a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2018.1526238" target="_blank">Bots</a> are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.</p><p>Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.</p><p>We've observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.</p><p>First, we used sophisticated software tools including <a href="https://github.com/mkearney/tweetbotornot" target="_blank">tweetbotornot</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hbe2.115" target="_blank">Botometer</a>, and <a href="https://botsentinel.com/" target="_blank">Bot Sentinel</a>.</p>
Who to blame?<p>Unfortunately, we don't know who is behind these accounts, <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1637447" target="_blank">as we can only access trace data such as tweet text and basic account information</a>.</p><p>This graph shows how many times #ArsonEmergency was tweeted between Dec. 31 last year and Jan. 8 this year:</p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ5ODcyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDAyNTM5OH0.RQ5XKjBViMUr8jAuGjne4FQgeJblaYZbvcSkTtmxLUI/img.jpg?width=980" id="7d8d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c48957637707dc6223059ef71e9dd72a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On Jan. 7, there were 4726 tweets. Author provided
Weeding-Out Inauthentic Behavior<p>In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter <a href="https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/not-normal-climate-change-bushfire-web/" target="_blank">evidence</a> that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.</p><p>Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.</p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjQ5ODczMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTA3ODczOX0.PaMXEW_P1Jbq-n0eeHB4Qd-Rlgz5FiGIUNdlX6roC5E/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e204" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc9b39e92218bb279ece99d797eea8d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts. Author provided
The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them. Author provided