Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation, and Characterization

Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation, and Characterization

Abstract

Increasing evidence suggests that a growing amount of social media content is generated by autonomous entities known as social bots. In this work we present a framework to detect such entities on Twitter. We leverage more than a thousand features extracted from public data and meta-data about users: friends, tweet content and sentiment, network patterns, and activity time series. We benchmark the classification framework by using a publicly available dataset of Twitter bots. This training data is enriched by a manually annotated collection of active Twitter users that include both humans and bots of varying sophistication. Our models yield high accuracy and agreement with each other and can detect bots of different nature. Our estimates suggest that between 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots. Characterizing ties among accounts, we observe that simple bots tend to interact with bots that exhibit more human-like behaviors. Analysis of content flows reveals retweet and mention strategies adopted by bots to interact with different target groups. Using clustering analysis, we characterize several subclasses of accounts, including spammers, self promoters, and accounts that post content from connected applications.

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Introduction

Social media are powerful tools connecting millions of people across the globe. These connections form the substrate that supports information dissemination, which ultimately affects the ideas, news, and opinions to which we are exposed. There exist entities with both strong motivation and technical means to abuse online social networks — from individuals aiming to artificially boost their popularity, to organizations with an agenda to influence public opinion. It is not difficult to automatically target particular user groups and promote specific content or views [\citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016a, \citeauthoryearBessi and Ferrara2016]. Reliance on social media may therefore make us vulnerable to manipulation.

Social bots are accounts controlled by software, algorithmically generating content and establishing interactions. Many social bots perform useful functions, such as dissemination of news and publications [\citeauthoryearLokot and Diakopoulos2016, \citeauthoryearHaustein et al.2016] and coordination of volunteer activities [\citeauthoryearSavage, Monroy-Hernandez, and Höllerer2016]. However, there is a growing record of malicious applications of social bots. Some emulate human behavior to manufacture fake grassroots political support [\citeauthoryearRatkiewicz et al.2011], promote terrorist propaganda and recruitment [\citeauthoryearBerger and Morgan2015, \citeauthoryearAbokhodair, Yoo, and McDonald2015, \citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016c], manipulate the stock market [\citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016a], and disseminate rumors and conspiracy theories [\citeauthoryearBessi et al.2015].

A growing body of research is addressing social bot activity, its implications on the social network, and the detection of these accounts [\citeauthoryearLee, Eoff, and Caverlee2011, \citeauthoryearBoshmaf et al.2011, \citeauthoryearBeutel et al.2013, \citeauthoryearYang et al.2014, \citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016a, \citeauthoryearChavoshi, Hamooni, and Mueen2016]. The magnitude of the problem was underscored by a Twitter bot detection challenge recently organized by DARPA to study information dissemination mediated by automated accounts and to detect malicious activities carried out by these bots [\citeauthoryearSubrahmanian et al.2016].

Contributions and Outline

Here we demonstrate that accounts controlled by software exhibit behaviors that reflects their intents and modus operandi [\citeauthoryearBakshy et al.2011, \citeauthoryearDas et al.2016], and that such behaviors can be detected by supervised machine learning techniques. This paper makes the following contributions:

  • We propose a framework to extract a large collection of features from data and meta-data about social media users, including friends, tweet content and sentiment, network patterns, and activity time series. We use these features to train highly-accurate models to identify bots. For a generic user, we produce a score representing the likelihood that the user is a bot.

  • The performance of our detection system is evaluated against both an existing public dataset and an additional sample of manually-annotated Twitter accounts collected with a different strategy. We enrich the previously-trained models using the new annotations, and investigate the effects of different datasets and classification models.

  • We classify a sample of millions of English-speaking active users. We use different models to infer thresholds in the bot score that best discriminate between humans and bots. We estimate that the percentage of Twitter accounts exhibiting social bot behaviors is between 9% and 15%.

  • We characterize friendship ties and information flow between users that show behaviors of different nature: human and bot-like. Humans tend to interact with more human-like accounts than bot-like ones, on average. Reciprocity of friendship ties is higher for humans. Some bots target users more or less randomly, others can choose targets based on their intentions.

  • Clustering analysis reveals certain specific behavioral groups of accounts. Manual investigation of samples extracted from each cluster points to three distinct bot groups: spammers, self promoters, and accounts that post content from connected applications.

Bot Detection Framework

In the next section, we introduce a Twitter bot detection framework (truthy.indiana.edu/botornot) that is freely available online. This system leverages more than one thousand features to evaluate the extent to which a Twitter account exhibits similarity to the known characteristics of social bots [\citeauthoryearDavis et al.2016].

Feature Extraction

Data collected using the Twitter API are distilled in 1,150 features in six different classes. The classes and types of features are reported in Table 1 and discussed next.

User meta-data Screen name length Sentiment (***) Happiness scores of aggregated tweets
Number of digits in screen name (***) Valence scores of aggregated tweets
User name length (***) Arousal scores of aggregated tweets
Time offset (sec.) (***) Dominance scores of single tweets
Default profile (binary) (*) Happiness score of single tweets
Default picture (binary) (*) Valence score of single tweets
Account age (days) (*) Arousal score of single tweets
Number of unique profile descriptions (*) Dominance score of single tweets
(*) Profile description lengths (*) Polarization score of single tweets
(*) Number of friends distribution (*) Entropy of polarization scores of single tweets
(*) Number of followers distribution (*) Positive emoticons entropy of single tweets
(*) Number of favorites distribution (*) Negative emoticons entropy of single tweets
Number of friends (signal-noise ratio and rel. change) (*) Emoticons entropy of single tweets
Number of followers (signal-noise ratio and rel. change) (*) Positive and negative score ratio of single tweets
Number of favorites (signal-noise ratio and rel. change) (*) Number of positive emoticons in single tweets
Number of tweets (per hour and total) (*) Number of negative emoticons in single tweets
Number of retweets (per hour and total) (*) Total number of emoticons in single tweets
Number of mentions (per hour and total) Ratio of tweets that contain emoticons
Number of replies (per hour and total)
Number of retweeted (per hour and total)
Friends () Number of distinct languages Network () Number of nodes
Entropy of language use Number of edges (also for reciprocal)
(*) Account age distribution (*) Strength distribution
(*) Time offset distribution (*) In-strength distribution
(*) Number of friends distribution (*) Out-strength distribution
(*) Number of followers distribution Network density (also for reciprocal)
(*) Number of tweets distribution (*) Clustering coeff. (also for reciprocal)
(*) Description length distribution
Fraction of users with default profile and default picture
(*,**) Frequency of POS tags in a tweet (*) Time between two consecutive tweets
(*,**) Proportion of POS tags in a tweet (*) Time between two consecutive retweets
(*) Number of words in a tweet (*) Time between two consecutive mentions
(*) Entropy of words in a tweet
  • We consider four types of connected users: retweeting, mentioning, retweeted, and mentioned.

  • We consider three types of network: retweet, mention, and hashtag co-occurrence networks.

  • Distribution types. For each distribution, the following eight statistics are computed and used as individual features: min, max, median, mean, std. deviation, skewness, kurtosis, and entropy.

  • Part-Of-Speech (POS) tag. There are nine POS tags: verbs, nuns, adjectives, modal auxiliaries, pre-determiners, interjections, adverbs, wh-, and pronouns.

  • For each feature, we compute mean and std. deviation of the weighted average across words in the lexicon.

Table 1: List of 1150 features extracted by our framework.

User-based features.

Features extracted from user meta-data have been used to classify users and patterns before [\citeauthoryearMislove et al.2011, \citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016a]. We extract user-based features from meta-data available through the Twitter API. Such features include the number of friends and followers, the number of tweets produced by the users, profile description and settings.

Friends features.

Twitter actively fosters inter-connectivity. Users are linked by follower-friend (followee) relations. Content travels from person to person via retweets. Also, tweets can be addressed to specific users via mentions. We consider four types of links: retweeting, mentioning, being retweeted, and being mentioned. For each group separately, we extract features about language use, local time, popularity, etc. Note that, due to Twitter’s API limits, we do not use follower/followee information beyond these aggregate statistics.

Network features.

The network structure carries crucial information for the characterization of different types of communication. In fact, the usage of network features significantly helps in tasks like political astroturf detection [\citeauthoryearRatkiewicz et al.2011]. Our system reconstructs three types of networks: retweet, mention, and hashtag co-occurrence networks. Retweet and mention networks have users as nodes, with a directed link between a pair of users that follows the direction of information spreading: toward the user retweeting or being mentioned. Hashtag co-occurrence networks have undirected links between hashtag nodes when two hashtags occur together in a tweet. All networks are weighted according to the frequency of interactions or co-occurrences. For each network, we compute a set of features, including in- and out-strength (weighted degree) distributions, density, and clustering. Note that out-degree and out-strength are measures of popularity.

Temporal features.

Prior research suggests that the temporal signature of content production and consumption may reveal important information about online campaigns and their evolution [\citeauthoryearGhosh, Surachawala, and Lerman2011, \citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016b, \citeauthoryearChavoshi, Hamooni, and Mueen2016]. To extract this signal we measure several temporal features related to user activity, including average rates of tweet production over various time periods and distributions of time intervals between events.

Content and language features.

Many recent papers have demonstrated the importance of content and language features in revealing the nature of social media conversations [\citeauthoryearDanescu-Niculescu-Mizil et al.2013, \citeauthoryearMcAuley and Leskovec2013, \citeauthoryearMocanu et al.2013, \citeauthoryearBotta, Moat, and Preis2015, \citeauthoryearLetchford, Moat, and Preis2015, \citeauthoryearDas et al.2016]. For example, deceiving messages generally exhibit informal language and short sentences [\citeauthoryearBriscoe, Appling, and Hayes2014]. Our system does not employ features capturing the quality of tweets, but collects statistics about length and entropy of tweet text. Additionally, we extract language features by applying the Part-of-Speech (POS) tagging technique, which identifies different types of natural language components, or POS tags. Tweets are therefore analyzed to study how POS tags are distributed.

Sentiment features.

Sentiment analysis is a powerful tool to describe the emotions conveyed by a piece of text, and more broadly the attitude or mood of an entire conversation. Sentiment extracted from social media conversations has been used to forecast offline events including financial market fluctuations [\citeauthoryearBollen, Mao, and Zeng2011], and is known to affect information spreading [\citeauthoryearMitchell et al.2013, \citeauthoryearFerrara and Yang2015]. Our framework leverages several sentiment extraction techniques to generate various sentiment features, including arousal, valence and dominance scores [\citeauthoryearWarriner, Kuperman, and Brysbaert2013], happiness score [\citeauthoryearKloumann et al.2012], polarization and strength [\citeauthoryearWilson, Wiebe, and Hoffmann2005], and emoticon score [\citeauthoryearAgarwal et al.2011].

Model Evaluation

To train our system we initially used a publicly available dataset consisting of 15K manually verified Twitter bots identified via a honeypot approach [\citeauthoryearLee, Eoff, and Caverlee2011] and 16K verified human accounts. We collected the most recent tweets produced by those accounts using the Twitter Search API. We limited our collection to 200 public tweets from a user timeline and up to 100 of the most recent public tweets mentioning that user. This procedure yielded a dataset of 2.6 million tweets produced by manually verified bots and 3 million tweets produced by human users.

We benchmarked our system using several off-the-shelf algorithms provided in the scikit-learn library [\citeauthoryearPedregosa et al.2011]. In a generic evaluation experiment, the classifier under examination is provided with numerical vectors, each describing the features of an account. The classifier returns a numerical score in the unit interval. A higher score indicates a stronger belief that the account is a bot. A model’s accuracy is evaluated by measuring the Area Under the receiver operating characteristic Curve (AUC) with 5-fold cross validation, and computing the average AUC score across the folds using Random Forests, AdaBoost, Logistic Regression and Decision Tree classifiers. The best classification performance of 0.95 AUC was obtained by the Random Forest algorithm. In the rest of the paper we use the Random Forest model trained using 100 estimators and the Gini coefficient to measure the quality of splits.

Large-Scale Evaluation

We realistically expect that the nature and sophistication of bots evolves over time and changes in specific conversational domains. It is therefore important to determine how reliable and consistent are the predictions produced by a system trained on a dataset but tested on different data (in the wild). Also, the continuously-evolving nature of bots dictates the need to constantly update the models based on newly available training data.

To obtain an updated evaluation of the accuracy of our model, we constructed an additional, manually-annotated collection of Twitter user accounts. We hypothesize that this recent collection includes some bots that are more sophisticated than the ones obtained years earlier with the honeypot method. We leveraged these manual annotations to evaluate the model trained using the honeypot dataset and then to update the classifier’s training data, producing a merged dataset to train a new model that ensures better generalization to more sophisticated accounts. User IDs and annotation labels in our extended dataset are publicly available (truthy.indiana.edu/botornot/data).

Data Collection

Our data collection focused on users producing content in English, as inferred from profile meta-data. We identified a large, representative sample of users by monitoring a Twitter stream, accounting for approximately 10% of public tweets, for 3 months starting in October 2015. This approach avoids known biases of other methods such as snowball and breadth-first sampling, which rely on the selection of an initial group of users [\citeauthoryearGjoka et al.2010, \citeauthoryearMorstatter et al.2013]. We focus on English speaking users as they represent the largest group on Twitter [\citeauthoryearMocanu et al.2013].

To restrict our sample to recently active users, we introduce the further criteria that they must have produced at least 200 tweets in total and 90 tweets during the three-month observation window (one per day on average). Our final sample includes approximately 14 million user accounts that meet both criteria. For each of these accounts, we collected their tweets through the Twitter Search API. We restricted the collection to the most recent 200 tweets and 100 mentions of each user, as described earlier. Owing to Twitter API limits, this greatly improved our data collection speed. This choice also reduces the response time of our service and API. However the limitation adds noise to the features, due to the scarcity of data available to compute them.

Manual Annotations

We computed classification scores for each of the active accounts using our initial classifier trained on the honeypot dataset. We then grouped accounts by their bot scores, allowing us to evaluate our system across the spectrum of human and bot accounts without being biased by the distribution of bot scores. We randomly sampled 300 accounts from each bot-score decile. The resulting balanced set of 3000 accounts were manually annotated by inspecting their public Twitter profiles. Some accounts have obvious flags, such as using a stock profile image or retweeting every message of another account within seconds. In general, however, there is no simple set of rules to assess whether an account is human or bot. With the help of four volunteers, we analyzed profile appearance, content produced and retweeted, and interactions with other users in terms of retweets and mentions. Annotators were not given a precise set of instructions to perform the classification task, but rather shown a consistent number of both positive and negative examples. The final decisions reflect each annotator’s opinion and are restricted to: human, bot, or undecided. Accounts labeled as undecided were eliminated from further analysis.

We annotated all 3000 accounts. We will refer to this set of accounts as the manually annotated data set. Each annotator was assigned a random sample of accounts from each decile. We enforced a minimum 10% overlap between annotations to assess the reliability of each annotator. This yielded an average pairwise agreement of 75% and moderate inter-annotator agreement (Cohen’s ). We also computed the agreement between annotators and classifier outcomes, assuming that a classification score above 0.5 is interpreted as a bot. This resulted in an average pairwise agreement of 79% and a moderately high Cohen’s . These results suggest high confidence in the annotation process, as well as in the agreement between annotations and model predictions.

Evaluating Models Using Annotated Data

To evaluate our classification system trained on the honeypot dataset, we examined the classification accuracy separately for each bot-score decile of the manually annonated dataset. We achieved classification accuracy greater than 90% for the accounts in the range, which includes mostly human accounts. We also observe accuracy above 70% for scores in the range (mostly bots). Accuracy for accounts in the grey-area range fluctuates between 60% and 80%. Intuitively, this range contains the most challenging accounts to label, as reflected also in the low inter-annotators overlap in this region. When the accuracy of each bin is weighted by the population density in the large dataset from which the manually annonated has been extracted, we obtain 86% overall classification accuracy.

We also compare annotator agreement scores for the accounts in each bot-score decile. We observe that agreement scores are higher for accounts in the range and lower for accounts in the range, indicating that it is more difficult for human annotators to identify bot-like as opposed to human-like behavior.

We observe a similar pattern for the amount of time required on average to annotate human and bot accounts. Annotators employed on average 33 seconds to label human accounts and 37 seconds for bot accounts.

Fig. 1 shows the results of experiments designed to investigate our ability to detect manually annotated bots. The baseline ROC curve is obtained by testing the honeypot model on the manually annotated dataset. Unsurprisingly, the baseline accuracy (0.85 AUC) is lower than that obtained cross-validating on the honeypot data (0.95 AUC), because the model is not trained on the newer bots.

Dataset Effect on Model Accuracy

Figure 1: ROC curves of models trained and tested on different datasets. Accuracy is measured by AUC.

We can update our models by combining the manually-annotated and honeypot datasets. We created multiple balanced datasets and performed 5-fold cross-validation to evaluate the accuracy of the corresponding models:

  • Annotation: We trained and tested a model by only using annotated accounts and labels assigned by the majority of annotators. This yields 0.89 AUC, a reasonable accuracy considering that the dataset contains recent and possibly sophisticated bots.

  • Merged: We merged the honeypot and annotation datasets for training and testing. The resulting classifier achieves 0.94 AUC, only slightly worse than the honeypot (training and test) model although the merged dataset contains a variety of more recent bots.

  • Mixture: Using mixtures with different ratios of accounts from the manually annotated and honeypot datasets, we obtain an accuracy ranging between 0.90 and 0.94 AUC.

Figure 2: Distribution of classifier score for human and bot accounts in the two datasets.

In Fig 2, we plot the distributions of classification scores for human and bot accounts according to each dataset. The mixture model trained on 2K annotated and 10K honeypot accounts is used to compute the scores. Human accounts in both datasets have similar distributions, peaked around 0.1. The difference between bots in the two datasets is more prominent. The distribution of simple, honeypot bots peaks around 0.9. The newer bots from the manually annotated dataset have typically smaller scores, with a distribution peaked around 0.6. They are more sophisticated, and exhibit characteristics more similar to human behavior. This raises the issue of how to properly set a threshold on the score when a strictly binary classification between human and bots is needed. To infer a suitable threshold, we compute classification accuracies for varying thresholds considering all accounts scoring below each threshold as human, and then select the threshold that maximizes accuracy.

Figure 3: Comparison of scores for different models. Each account is represented as a point in the scatter plot with a color determined by its category. Test points are randomly sampled from our large-scale collection. Pearson correlations between scores are also reported, along with estimated thresholds and corresponding accuracies.

We compared scores for accounts in the manually annotated dataset by pairs of models (i.e. trained with different mixtures) for labeled human, bot, and a random subset of accounts (Fig. 3). As expected, both models assign lower scores for humans and higher for bots. High correlation coefficients indicate agreement between the models.

Feature Importance Analysis

To compare the usefulness of different features, we trained models using each class of features alone. We achieved the best performance with user meta-data features; content features are also effective. Both yielded AUC above 0.9. Other feature classes yielded AUC above 0.8.

We analyzed the importance of single features using the Gini impurity score produced by our Random Forests model. To rank the top features for a given dataset, we randomly select a subset of 10,000 accounts and compute the top features across 100 randomized experiments. The top 10 features are sufficient to reach performance of 0.9 AUC. Sentiment and content of mentioned tweets are important features along with the statistical properties of retweet networks. Features of the friends with whom a user interacts are strong predictors as well. We observed the redundancy among many correlated features, such as distribution-type features (cf. Table 1), especially in the content and sentiment categories. Further analysis of feature importance is the subject of ongoing investigation.

False Positive and False Negative Cases

Neither human annotators nor machine-learning models perform flawlessly. Humans are better at generalizing and learning new features from observed data. Machines outperform human annotators at processing large numbers of relations and searching for complex patterns. We analyzed our annotated accounts and their bot scores to highlight when disagreement occurs between annotators and classification models. Using an optimal threshold, we measured false positive and false negative rates at 0.15 and 0.11 respectively in our extended dataset. In these experiments, human annotation is considered as ground truth.

We identified the cases when the disagreement between classifier score and annotations occurs. We manually examined a sample from these accounts to investigate these errors. Accounts annotated as human can be classified as bot when an account posts tweets created by connected applications from other platforms. Some unusually active users are also classified as bots. Those users tend to have more retweets in general. This is somewhat intuitive as retweeting has lower cost than creating new content. We encountered examples of misclassification for organizational and promotional accounts. Such accounts are often operated by multiple individuals, or combinations of users and automatic tools, generating misleading cues for the classifiers. Finally, the language of the content can also cause errors: our models tend to assign high bot scores to users who tweet in multiple languages. To mitigate this problem, the public version of our system now includes a classifier that ignores language-dependent features.

Estimation of Bot Population

Figure 4: Estimation of bot population obtained from models with different sensitivity to sophisticated bots. The main charts show the score distributions based on our dataset of 14M users; accounts identified as bots are highlighted. The inset plots show how the thresholds are computed by maximizing accuracy. The titles of each subplot reflect the number of accounts from the annotated and honeypot datasets, respectively.

In a 2014 report by Twitter to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the company put forth an estimate that between 5% and 8.5% of their user base consists of bots.1 We would like to offer our own assessment of the proportion of bot accounts as measured with our approach. Since our framework provides a continuous bot score as opposed to a discrete bot/human judgement, we must first determine an appropriate bot-score threshold separating human and bot accounts to estimate the proportion of bot accounts.

To infer a suitable threshold, we computed classification accuracies for varying thresholds considering all accounts scoring below each threshold as human. We then selected the threshold yielding maximum accuracy (see insets of Fig. 4).

We estimated the population of bots using different models. This approach allows us to identify lower and upper bounds for the prevalence of Twitter bots. Models trained using the annotated dataset alone yield estimates of up to 15% of accounts being bots. Recall that the honeypot dataset was obtained earlier and therefore does not include newer, more sophisticated bots. Thus models trained on the honeypot data alone are less sensitive to these sophisticated bots, yielding a more conservative estimate of 9%. Mixing the training data from these two sources results in estimates between these bounds depending on the ratio of the mixture, as illustrated in Fig. 4. Taken together, these numbers suggest that estimates about the prevalence of Twitter bots are highly dependent on the definition and sophistication of the bots.

Some other remarks are in order. First, we do not exclude the possibility that very sophisticated bots can systematically escape a human annotator’s judgement. These complex bots may be active on Twitter, and therefore present in our datasets, and may have been incorrectly labeled as humans, making even the 15% figure a conservative estimate. Second, increasing evidence suggests the presence on social media of hybrid human-bot accounts (sometimes referred to as cyborgs) that perform automated actions with some human supervision [\citeauthoryearChu et al.2012, \citeauthoryearClark et al.2016]. Some have been allegedly used for terrorist propaganda and recruitment purposes. It remains unclear how these accounts should be labeled, and how pervasive they are.

Characterization of User Interactions

Let us next characterize social connectivity, information flow, and shared properties of users. We analyze the creation of social ties by accounts with different bot scores, and their interactions through shared content. We also cluster accounts and investigate shared properties of users in each cluster. Here and in the remainder of this paper, bot scores are computed with a model trained on the merged dataset.

Social connectivity

Figure 5: Distributions of bot scores for friends (top) and followers (bottom) of accounts in different score intervals.
Figure 6: Distribution of reciprocity scores for accounts in different score intervals.

To characterize the social connectivity, we collected the social networks of the accounts in our dataset using the Twitter API. Resulting friend and follower relations account for 46 billion social ties, 7 billion of which represent ties between the initially collected user set.

Our observations on social connectivity are presented in Fig. 5. We computed bot-score distributions of friends and followers of accounts for each score interval. The dark line in the top panel shows that human accounts (low score) mostly follow other human accounts. The dark line in the bottom panel shows a principal peak around 0.1 and a secondary one around 0.5. This indicates that humans are typically followed by other humans, but also by sophisticated bots (intermediate scores). The lines corresponding to high scores in the two panels show that bots tend to follow other bots and they are mostly followed by bots. However simple bots (0.8–1.0 ranges) can also attract human attention. This happens when, e.g., humans follow benign bots such as those that share news. This gives rise to the secondary peak of the red line in the bottom panel. In summary, the creation of social ties leads to a homophily effect.

Fig. 6 illustrates the extent to which connections are reciprocated, given the nature of the accounts forming the ties. The reciprocity score of a user is defined as the fraction of friends who are also followers. We observe that human accounts reciprocate more (dark line). Increasing bot scores correlate with lower reciprocity. We also observe that simple bot accounts (0.8–1.0 ranges) have bimodal reciprocity distributions, indicating the existence of two distinct behaviors. The majority of high-score accounts have reciprocity score smaller than 0.2, possibly because simple bots follow users at random. The slight increase as the reciprocity score approaches one may be due to botnet accounts that coordinate by following each other.

Information flow

Figure 7: Bot score distributions of users mentioned (top) and retweeted (bottom) by accounts with different scores.

Twitter is a platform that fosters social connectivity and the broadcasting of popular content. In Fig. 7 we analyze information flow in terms of mentions/retweets as a function of the score of the account being mentioned or retweeted.

Simple bots tend to retweet each other (lines for scores in the 0.8–1.0 ranges peak around 0.8 in the bottom panel), while they frequently mention sophisticated bots (peaking around 0.5 in the top panel). More sophisticated bots (scores in the 0.5–0.7 ranges) retweet, but do not mention humans. They might be unable to engage in meaningful exchanges with humans. While humans also retweet bots, as they may post interesting content (see peaks of the dark lines in the bottom panel), they have no interest in mentioning bots directly (dark lines in the top panel).

Clustering accounts

To characterize different account types, let us group accounts into behavioral clusters. We apply K-Means to normalized vectors of the 100 most important features selected by our Random Forests model. We identify 10 distinct clusters based on different evaluation criteria, such as silhouette scores and percentage of variance explained. In Fig 8, we present a 2-dimensional projection of users obtained by a dimensionality reduction technique called t-SNE [\citeauthoryearMaaten and Hinton2008]. In this method, the similarity between users is computed based on their 100-dimensional representation in the feature space. Similar users are projected into nearby points and dissimilar users are kept distant from each other.

Figure 8: t-SNE embedding of accounts. Points are colored based on clustering in high-dimensional space. For each cluster, the distribution of scores is presented on the right.

Let us investigate shared cluster properties by manual inspection of random subsets of accounts from each cluster. Three of the clusters, namely C0C2, have high average bot scores. The presence of significant amounts of bot accounts in these clusters was manually verified. These bot clusters exhibit some prominent properties: cluster C0, for example, consists of legit-looking accounts that are promoting themselves (recruiters, porn actresses, etc.). They are concentrated in the lower part of the 2-dimensional embedding, suggesting homogeneous patterns of behaviors. C1 contains spam accounts that are very active but have few followers. Accounts in C2 frequently use automated applications to share activity from other platforms like YouTube and Instagram, or post links to news articles. Some of the accounts in C2 might belong to actual humans who are no longer active and their posts are mostly sent by connected apps.

Cluster C3 contain a mix of sophisticated bots, cyborg-like accounts (mix of bot and human features), and human users. Clusters of predominantly human accounts, namely C4C9, separate from one another in the embedding due to different activity styles, user popularity, content production and consumption patterns. For instance, accounts in C7 engage more with their friends, unlike accounts from C8 that mostly retweet with little other forms of interaction. Clusters C5, C6, and C9 contain common Twitter users who produce experiential tweets, share pictures, and retweet their friends.

Related Work

Also known as “sybil” accounts, social bots can pollute online discussion by lending false credibility to their messages and influence other users [\citeauthoryearFerrara et al.2016a, \citeauthoryearAiello et al.2012]. Recent studies quantify the extent to which automated systems can dominate discussions on Twitter about topics ranging from electronic cigarettes [\citeauthoryearClark et al.2015] to elections [\citeauthoryearBessi and Ferrara2016]. Large collections of social bots, also known as botnets, are controlled by botmasters and used for coordinated activities. Examples of such botnets identified for advertisement [\citeauthoryearEcheverría and Zhou2017] and influence about Syrian civic war [\citeauthoryearAbokhodair, Yoo, and McDonald2015]. Social bots also vary greatly in terms of their behavior, intent, and vulnerabilities, as illustrated in a categorization scheme for bot attacks [\citeauthoryearMitter, Wagner, and Strohmaier2013].

Much of the previous work on detecting bots is from the perspective of the social network platform operators, implying full access to all data. These studies focus on collecting large-scale data to either cluster behavioral patterns of users [\citeauthoryearWang et al.2013a] or classify accounts using supervised learning techniques [\citeauthoryearYang et al.2014, \citeauthoryearLee, Eoff, and Caverlee2011]. For instance, Beutel et al. decomposed event data in time, user, and activity dimensions to extract similar behaviors [\citeauthoryearBeutel et al.2013]. These techniques are useful to identify coordinated large-scale attacks directed at a common set of targets at the same time, but accounts with similar strategies might also target different groups and operate separately from each other.

Structural connectivity may provide important cues. However, Yang et al. studied large-scale sybil attacks and observed sophisticated sybils that develop strategies for building normal-looking social ties, making themselves harder to detect [\citeauthoryearYang et al.2014]. Some sybil attacks analyze the social graph of targeted groups to infiltrate specific organizations [\citeauthoryearElyashar et al.2013]. SybilRank is a system developed to identify attacks from their underlying topology [\citeauthoryearCao et al.2012]. Alvisi et al. surveyed the evolution of sybil defense protocols that leverage the structural properties of the social graph [\citeauthoryearAlvisi et al.2013].

The work presented here follows several previous contributions to the problem of social bot detection that leverage learning models trained with data collected from human and bot accounts. Chu et al. built a classification system identifying accounts controlled by humans, bots, and cyborgs [\citeauthoryearChu et al.2010, \citeauthoryearChu et al.2012]. Wang et al. analyzed sybil attacks using annotations by experts and crowd-sourcing workers to evaluate consistency and effectiveness of different detection systems [\citeauthoryearWang et al.2013b]. Clark et al. labeled 1,000 accounts by hand and found natural language text features to be very effective at discriminating between human and automated accounts [\citeauthoryearClark et al.2016]. Lee et al. used a honeypot approach to collect the largest sample of bot accounts available to date [\citeauthoryearLee, Eoff, and Caverlee2011]. That study generated the honeypot dataset used in the present paper. Here, we extend this body of prior work by exploring many different categories of features, contributing a new labeled dataset, estimating the number of bot accounts, analyzing information flow among accounts, identifying several classes of behaviors, and providing a public bot detection service.

An alternative approach to study social bots and sybil attacks is to understand what makes certain groups and individuals more appealing as targets. Wald et al. studied the factors affecting the likelihood of a users being targeted by social bots [\citeauthoryearWald et al.2013]. These approaches point to effective strategies that future social bots might develop.

Recently, we have observed efforts to facilitate research collaborations on the topic of social bots. DARPA organized a bot detection challenge in the domain of anti-vaccine campaigns on Twitter [\citeauthoryearSubrahmanian et al.2016]. We released our Twitter bot detection system online for public use [\citeauthoryearDavis et al.2016]. Since its release, our system has received millions of requests and we are improving models based on feedback we received from our users. The increasing availability of software and datasets on social bots will help design systems that are capable of co-evolving with recent social bots and hopefully mitigating the effects of their malicious activities.

Conclusions

Social media make it easy for accounts controlled by hybrid or automated approaches to create content and interact with other accounts. Our project aims to identify these bots. Such a classification task could be a first step toward studying modes of communication among different classes of entities on social media.

In this article, we presented a framework for bot detection on Twitter. We introduced our machine learning system that extracts more than a thousand features in six different classes: users and friends meta-data, tweet content and sentiment, network patterns, and activity time series. We evaluated our framework when initially trained on an available dataset of bots. Our initial classifier achieves 0.95 AUC when evaluated by using 5-fold cross validation. Our analysis on the contributions of different feature classes suggests that user meta-data and content features are the two most valuable sources of data to detect simple bots.

To evaluate the performance of our classifier on a more recent and challenging sample of bots, we randomly selected Twitter accounts covering the whole spectrum of classification scores. The accuracy of our initial classifier trained on the honeypot dataset decreased to 0.85 AUC when tested on the more challenging dataset. By retraining the classifier with the two datasets merged, we achieved high accuracy (0.94 AUC) in detecting both simple and sophisticated bots.

We also estimated the fraction of bots in the active English-speaking population on Twitter. We classified nearly 14M accounts using our system and inferred the optimal threshold scores that separate human and bot accounts for several models with different mixes of simple and sophisticated bots. Training data have an important effect on classifier sensitivity. Our estimates for the bot population range between 9% and 15%. This points to the importance of tracking increasingly sophisticated bots, since deception and detection technologies are in a never-ending arms race.

To characterize user interactions, we studied social connectivity and information flow between different user groups. We showed that selection of friends and followers are correlated with accounts bot-likelihood. We also highlighted how bots use different retweet and mention strategies when interacting with humans or other bots.

We concluded our analysis by characterizing subclasses of account behaviors. Clusters identified by this analysis point mainly to three types of bots. These results emphasize that Twitter hosts a variety of users with diverse behaviors; this is true for both human and bot accounts. In some cases, the boundary separating these two groups is not sharp and an account can exhibit characteristics of both.

Acknowledgments. We thank M. JafariAsbagh, P. Shiralkar for helpful discussions. We also want to thank undergraduate students A. Toms, A. Fulton, A. Witulski, and M. Johnston for contributing data annotation. This work was supported in part by ONR (N15A-020-0053), DARPA (W911NF-12-1-0037), NSF (CCF-1101743), and the J.S. McDonnell Foundation.

Footnotes

  1. www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1418091/000156459014003474/twtr-10q_20140630.htm

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