Ongoing research by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University indicates that a significant portion of the social media conversation about COVID-19 is likely automated amplifications of political perspectives and do not represent individual human authors.
The study has reached no conclusion about which interests may be primarily responsible for the bots, but many of the messages are repeating information from Russian and Chinese state media. During the 2016 presidential election, computer operations linked to the Kremlin were found to be responsible for campaign tweets and other messages that further divided the American electorate by amplifying controversy.
With coronavirus, “We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that,” lead researcher Kathleen Carley, a computer science professor and head of the university’s Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity, said in a Carnegie Mellon report last week about the research.
Researchers said that the sophisticated bot campaign concerning COVID-19 is also aimed at exacerbating divisions in the U.S. Messages peddling conspiracy theories “increase polarization in groups. It’s what many misinformation campaigns aim to do,” Carley said. “People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides.”
But she also said that because the pandemic is global, it’s also likely being used by “various countries and interest groups as an opportunity to meet political agendas.”