Africa: Attack of the Killer Bots - Social Media and Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories


A local public service announcement warns that social media bots are spreading dangerous Covid-19 conspiracy theories and are putting lives at risk.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Do you know who you are talking to on social media? Are they trustworthy, or do they harbour nefarious, hidden agendas?

Nearly half of all internet traffic is believed to be driven by bots mimicking human behaviour, learning and growing smarter by the day.

Estimates suggest there are between 500 million and a billion bot accounts on social media, many being used to spread disinformation and manipulate social narratives that shape beliefs and influence online and offline behaviour.

Notably, these bots, deployed by Russian agents, polarised political discussions around the 2016 US presidential election. In South Africa, they drove social divisions for the Guptas during the white monopoly capital campaigns run by disgraced former public relations firm, Bell Pottinger.

Most people are unable to identify whether or not a tweet is posted by a human or a bot. In The Conversation, Emilio Ferrar, an associate professor of computer science and communication at the University of Southern California, wrote about their research from 2016 to determine which accounts are bots...

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