Robots boosted 50% of pro-Bolsonaro tweets at the beginning of the campaign

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro (PL) and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva used bots (robots) to boost their candidates on Twitter on the first day of the campaign. The use of automation was higher among Bolsonaristas: 50% of retweets, against 25% among PT supporters. The practice is not permitted by law.

The behavior was identified by the Pegabot tool, an algorithm developed by ITS-Rio (Rio de Janeiro Institute of Technology and Society), formed by researchers from universities such as UERJ (Rio de Janeiro State University), FGV (Getulio Vargas Foundation) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab, which shared the survey exclusively with UOL.

The campaign officially started on August 16. At the time, Pegabot analyzed on Twitter the behavior of the tags that were highlighted that day: #Vote22Bolsonaro and #LulaPresident13.

“These hashtags mobilized a relevant volume of shares in a short space of time”, says ITS-Rio about the bots.

How do robots work and what has Pegabot discovered? These robots work by automatically and sequentially retweeting posts from real people using a certain hashtag. This makes her appear in more posts, raising her performance on Twitter and being among the most talked about topics on the social network.

The institute explains that, on average, the same user mentioned up to four times the hashtags #Vote22Bolsonaro and #LulaPresident13. For the survey, users who posted at least five times were selected, “and we analyzed the existence of automated behavior among them using Pegabot”.

On the first day of the campaign, Bolsonaristas were responsible for 53.5% of the 125,300 tweets analyzed, against 46.5% of PT members. Part of the advantage is due to the role of robots, which is greater among the president’s supporters.

What was the conclusion? The conclusion is that 49.8% of the 18,926 Bolsonarista users analyzed “presented a probability of automated behavior with a value equal to or greater than 70%”, accounting for “by sharing 43,908 tweets and retweets, 65.4% of the total volume of tweets collected [67,1 mil]”.

Among PT members, 24.7% of the 22,286 users evaluated showed automated behavior, sharing 26,816 tweets and retweets, or 46% of the total collected. [58,2 mil]”.

Some users even shared tweets and retweets more than 200 times.”
Institute of Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro

A single Bolsonar robot reached 434 publications, while a PT robot did the same 359 times.

How does Pegabot find bots on Twitter? Responsible for the Department of Democracy and Media at ITS-Rio, Karina Santos says that the institute monitors hashtags daily, “identifying which ones emerge in a potentially suspicious way”, as was the case with #Vote22Bolsonaro and #LulaPresident13.

“The speed of sharing and the type of engagement around a topic indicates a possibility of inauthentic behavior,” he says. “The algorithm analyzes profile characteristics, the type of engagement on the platform, language used in the account and the network of followers around the user.”

Why is using robots dangerous? The expert warns that, in social networks, artificial intelligence without transparency “can be used to inflate a specific discourse, build and spread narratives, create content bubbles and spread disinformation”.

We see a strong use of bots to viralize information with the aim of deceiving public opinion, falsifying a sense of importance and support. They are used to make a content appear to have been commented on by everyone without being, to discredit certain personalities or praise other figures.”
Karina Santos, from ITS-Rio

O what does the law say? The electoral law only allows content to be promoted on social networks if the author pays for the platform, such as Twitter, to spread the information. In this case, the “sponsored content” notice appears.

The use of robots is prohibited, says lawyer specialized in public law Roberto Piccelli, who cites Law 9.504/97, amended in 2017. One of the excerpts says that “It is not allowed to broadcast electoral content by registering user of an internet application with the intention of falsifying identity”.

In another, it states that “the use of content boosting and digital tools not made available by the internet application provider is prohibited”.

What if the person responsible for the robot is caught? The TSE (Superior Electoral Court) only interferes in the matter if it receives a formal complaint “from any citizen, including opponents”, explains Piccelli, who studies the relationship between the Constitution and digital media.

The law provides for a fine of BRL 5,000 to BRL 30,000 for the author, if identified, and also for the beneficiary candidate “when proof of prior knowledge”. The social network will be subject to a fine only if it fails to comply with a court order to remove the content from the air.

“As much as we can assume that the initiative came from users without the campaign’s knowledge, the use of robots violates the logic of controlling electoral expenses”, says the lawyer. “After all, it is an unofficial contribution to the beneficiary candidate’s campaign, likely from an illicit source.”

What does the candidates’ campaign say? Sought after, the candidates’ campaigns did not respond until the publication of this report.

According to Twitter, third-party tools that “access public account information” collect “very limited data for this analysis.”

The platform states that “the TSE has a direct and permanent channel of contact with Twitter to discuss initiatives, best practices and actions necessary to protect the integrity of conversations about the elections”.

“This is in addition to the regular and frequent enforcement of our rules, including those to combat spam and platform manipulation, and the increasingly proactive detection of potential violations of them,” he says.

According to data recently released by the platform, of the 238 million active profiles on the network, 5% are automated. The data is disputed by billionaire Elon Musk, who decided to cancel the purchase of the platform, alleging Twitter’s lack of transparency about fake profiles.

Karina defends a regulation in the style of “follow the money”, an expression in English that means following the money of those who finance these coordinated campaigns “because the disinformation market in Brazil is very well structured”.

“In an electoral scenario, this use can have a direct impact on the voter’s voting decision, which is very worrying”, he concludes.

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