"I'm an opponent, I do not know how many hours I'm on Twitter, not many times, I usually connect when there's something I'm interested in spreading: an electoral debate, a candidate's interview," says Andres, 29, of Madrid. . Your activity on Twitter is bursts, but disproportionate: in a trending topic recent on Pablo Iglesias launched 20 original tweets and 207 retweets in just over an hour.
His behavior is extraordinary for the usual on Twitter. But not for a group of elite tweeters who believe that the best way to help their cause or party is to tweet without stopping.
We have isolated the 150 most active accounts, which produced up to 300 tweets in one hour
Twitter has traditionally been famous for its bots: automated accounts that tweet a lot to influence conversation topics. In EL PAÍS we have looked for how these alleged bots prepared for the electoral campaign. Out of six trending topics pre-election – the topics that dominate the conversation – of all the parties, we have isolated the 150 most active accounts, which could produce up to 300 tweets in an hour. It is the typical behavior of a bot.
We have contacted 24 of the most dynamic. And surprise: behind those often anonymous names that machine tweets are human beings, not bots methodically programmed. Of the 24 contacted, 16 responded and 10 agreed to respond to a questionnaire. Because of their profile, they are what we call "semibots".
Their answers do not imply that there are no bots on Twitter. Or that these semibots are not managed from the headquarters of a party or a subcontracted company. Or that they are somewhat less active. Perhaps even one of the accounts that has responded is part of a farm and its owner has invented a half-life. Because of the style and the sincerity in the answers, it did not look like it. But who knows.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SEMIBOT
Activity per hour in a day of ten of these profiles. To compare, in gray, the frequency of tweets from the El País account on Tuesday, April 9, one day of the pre-election campaign.
This group are not the only semibots of Spain. His presence was dominant in a hashtag of their favorite party, but they did not always lead. Although some do repeat, they are only a sample. As you can see in the graph, it is more common for tweet peaks to be given once or twice and always during the day, reflecting their humanity. In the hashtag #ObjetivoIglesias, there was an account that retweeted 350 tweets. Four other accounts did more than 200 times. Some of those users have activated now that elections are coming. Others tweet at all times.
After this experiment, it is possible to venture that there are hundreds of accounts with this level of political activity, but we have not seen thousands. It seems like a feat to tweet so much. But it is not so difficult. In the end it is to enter a debate of the day and retweet or write two or three times per minute during peak hours.
This very human work has its automated version. Since 2018, Twitter has made an effort to lower the weight of the bots. According to Twitter data, each week 8-10 million spam accounts are required to be identified around the world. Three out of four of those accounts are suspended. That means that one in four suspicious accounts for Twitter are real. It is possible that they are semibots. Some account analyzed by EL PAÍS was in fact suspended due to excessive tweets.
The challenge of Twitter is to calibrate the weight of the semibots that can be coordinated in other platforms
Now the challenge of Twitter is to calibrate the weight of the semibots that can be coordinated in other platforms, such as Telegram and WhatsApp. Traditional measures to detect bots do not work: same simultaneous tweet from several accounts, same photo, same biography.
The semibots that have agreed to answer are not homogeneous, but they do share characteristics:
1. From all parts and many ages. They are not grandmothers from the seat or standing up worried. The sample is not obviously representative, but there is everything. Two are out of work, one because of depression, another because "I had surgery for cancer and one eye five times, I do not work and I have a pension," says Jorge, 38, of Cartagena. Two work in shifts: "I work in turns in security in a building and there are positions that are very active and others more relaxed and I can tweet," says Pablo, 49, of Parla (Madrid).
Many have free time at home, or if they do not look for it: "Living alone allows me to use more time, I usually do it in free time, having a coffee in a bar, at home after lunch or dinner, I see very little television and Twitter helps with free time, "says Jesús, from a village in Gipuzkoa and 60 years old.
The days are varied, but never disengage from the work, as this user of Jaen says: "I enter Twitter when I get up, while breakfast, from 6.45 to 7.10.That time I use it to catch up and retweet. I enter the breaks of work If I can, I put some of my harvest on something of the day After lunch I return to use it with retuits During the afternoon, it depends on the day, I can enter for one or two hours or not At night I do dedicate an hour or more. " That is, all day.
2. In favor of discretion. Most of the names of the users of these accounts include their first name or a nickname that suggests it. Only two use his real name. To publish, everyone has asked for discretion with their names. Some of those who have said they did not want to participate have been to maintain anonymity.
Twitter Spain has just published a survey where it presumes that "40% of users have no qualms about giving their opinion or positioning themselves politically before others on Twitter". Anonymity is likely to facilitate positioning.
3. A tweet can change the world. It is obvious that many of these users do so by militancy or activism: "I do it out of commitment to the Party," says Jose Ignacio, 57, of Oviedo, in reference to the PSOE. Jorge says that he obtained more concrete results in Citizens: "I do it out of conviction towards a program that is in line with my ideas, I believe that I do have influence: three candidates for primary and two have asked for help."
But there are those who simply want to promote their ideas: "When I also loose my truths it is with certain people, unable to argue, regardless of the ideology they are," says Pinar, from Madrid and 48 years old. Pinar also gives one of the most obvious reasons to believe that Twitter does serve: "Even with few followers you can influence more people than before entering Twitter."
Nobody would do it if he did not believe that something can change in the conscience of his 'followers'
But nobody would do it if he did not believe that something could change in the consciousness of his followers. The metaphor of the grain of sand is useful: "I do it to defend my ideas, to help spread and, if I can, to create opinion. I like that people read what I put, especially I would like someone to be convinced", says the user of Jaén.
It is difficult to think that someone throw 200 tweets and believe that they are useless. An advantage of these accounts is that their followers are usually real and can exceed a thousand. For his followers, the effectiveness is really remarkable: to follow them implies having the screen flooded with messages favorable to their parties. It is entering a monocolor world. It is doubtful that political rivals get in there, but perhaps encourage some voter to go to the polls.
Twitter is a useful network for that. According to his survey, "36% of Twitter users in Spain consider themselves 'Micro Opinion Leaders'". Fit with this group.
4. There are many bots, but in other games. This group of users so involved believes that there are many bots on Twitter. But they are usually on other sides. "There are bots that are interested in modifying people's thinking," says Jorge. Although in the background there are people who respond: "There is a lot of bot, but most are people or groups of people," says Pinar, who admits to engage in more debates and respond.
José Ignacio believes that Twitter does little to solve it: "There are many bots and it is something that Twitter has unattended." From Jaén, the activist close to the PP also sees that the bots are a danger to others: "I think there is a lot of bot, a lot, and a lot of fake, but they are not the majority, they arise out of necessity of means or parties". It is easier to think that the bad ones are the others.
Twitter is obviously your favorite network. They have little time to go to Facebook or Instagram, although they use them. But they do not adore her: "On Twitter there are very intelligent people but also a lot of talkative bullshit," says Daniel, from Ronda (Málaga) and 57, in a great definition of the network. He also believes that it is a "guerrilla" place.
Jorge, from Citizens, believes that there are more left tweets: "The network is useful but somewhat partial since it is very detrimental to center and right positions," he says. But what is clear is that, for them, as Pablo says, Twitter is political: "And also with people that I do not know, who are only joined by ideology."
The bots have two objectives: one, that the followers see the tweets, and two, and more importantly, flood the network to create trends and that the common users believe that there are more people defending a position than there really is. Twitter says that it has greatly limited this trap. "We are automating processes where we see suspicious activity, such as an excessively high tweet volume with the same hashtag or use a name without having any response from the account mentioned."
How effective is this actually? Twitter does not give figures. But they warn that semibot activity is a risk: human and coordinated attempts to repeatedly retweet or manipulate trends also violate their rules. Another thing is that they really detect it.