Disinformation and Social Bot Operations in the Run Up to the 2017 French Presidential Election

Ferrara, Emilio
First Monday

Recent accounts from researchers, journalists, as well as federal investigators, reached a unanimous conclusion: social media are systematically exploited to manipulate and alter public opinion. Some disinformation campaigns have been coordinated by means of bots, social media accounts controlled by computer scripts that try to disguise themselves as legitimate human users. In this study, we describe one such operation occurred in the run up to the 2017 French presidential election. We collected a massive Twitter dataset of nearly 17 million posts occurred between April 27 and May 7, 2017 (Election Day). We then set to study the MacronLeaks disinformation campaign: By leveraging a mix of machine learning and cognitive behavioral modeling techniques, we separated humans from bots, and then studied the activities of the two groups taken independently, as well as their interplay. We provide a characterization of both the bots and the users who engaged with them and oppose it to those users who didn’t. Prior interests of disinformation adopters pinpoint to the reasons of the scarce success of this campaign: the users who engaged with MacronLeaks are mostly foreigners with a preexisting interest in alt-right topics and alternative news media, rather than French users with diverse political views. Concluding, anomalous account usage patterns suggest the possible existence of a black-market for reusable political disinformation bots.