To a still-unclear degree, online misinformation and disturbance generated by bots online had some effect on important elections this past year. Legions of Twitter bots helped spread information that bolstered Trump’s position somewhat, and bots also helped try and spread falsified leaks about newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron shortly before his election. Now, new research from USC academic Emilio Ferrara, via Motherboard, indicates some overlap between the two groups (the paper is currently undergoing peer review). In other words, sock puppets that were put to use helping Trump went dark for a bit, and then reemerged to try and hurt Macron’s chances.
While much of the report is focused on how the bots failed to manipulate the French election, one bullet point stands out.
Finally, we uncovered that accounts used to support then-presidential candidate Trump before the 2016 U.S. election have been brought back from a limbo of inactivity (since November 2016) to join the MacronLeaks disinformation campaign. Such anomalous usage patterns point to the possible existence of a black-market for reusable political-disinformation bots.
Before we go any further it’s worth reiterating what is included in the bullet point, particularly the word “anomalous usage patterns” to indicate that this is not a widespread trend. But the smaller subset of bots committed to both pro-Trump and anti-Macron campaigns does raise the question of sock puppets as industry — whole botnets that wake up and go dormant as election cycles deem necessary, possibly for rent to whoever needs them at any point in time. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, although the effectiveness of such tactics is heavily debated and highly suspect. Even if it is just one person or group, it shows that they have the ability to significantly and easily scale their reach around the globe.