Shortly after midnight on Jan. 24, the home-made device David Puente built to catch fake Twitter accounts in the act started rumbling. In just over a minute, more than 150 users sent out the same tweet extolling Italian anti-euro populist Matteo Salvini, a contender in next month’s presidential election. It was obvious to Puente, a computer programmer, that they were bots, or automated accounts that masquerade as real people and are used increasingly as a tool to sway political opinion. “Monitoring the accounts of all the candidates is a civic duty for me,” said Puente, 35, who often stays up until 3 a.m. tracking social-media activity from his home in northern Italy while his family sleeps.
Fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook that have lain dormant since a 2016 referendum campaign are springing back to life before the Italian ballot on March 4. Polls indicate no clear winner, leaving plenty of room for different factions to exploit social media to try to swing more votes their way.
Findings of the digital forensic research lab at Atlantic Council in Washington suggest the campaign could be vulnerable to manipulation using these robot accounts. Such concerns were validated just last week when U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller detailed a sweeping conspiracy orchestrated by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with social media a key to the effort. Bots — which follow, tweet, re-tweet and like content — can exaggerate the support for smaller factions and spread false or inadequate information.