Social media are the main source of news for over a quarter of Ukrainians, with two-thirds of them using mainly Facebook. This social networking website is currently the most popular one in Ukraine.
Disclaimer by Artellence and VoxUkraine. The main objective of this article is to draw the attention of Ukrainian society to the number of bots in social media and their pronounced influence on online communication.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Facebook has become an important platform for promoting Ukrainian politicians ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections. VoxUkraine along with Artellence examined how social bots comment on Facebook pages of the most popular politicians and news about them. Whose page has the most bots, what narrative do they push, which politicians they promote and which ones they discredit? We investigated how social media that were created to connect people are used for propaganda.
We analysed Facebook posts on pages of the most popular politicians and media outlets that received the most comments from bots over the period from May 1, 2019, to July 8, 2019.
How we identified bots
Artellence has developed a machine learning algorithm for bot identification that we used to analyse publicly available information from Facebook’s Ukrainian segment. That included both the comments and the users’ profiles. Only users who have posted at least 10 comments on political topics were analysed. Ultimately, the users we consider to be bots are the ones that the model developed by Artellence believes to be bots with a high degree of probability.
Let’s explain the principle of how bot accounts work. In most cases, these are accounts created and managed by humans. They can write original comments or copy the ones that were written in advance according to the narrative approved by the client. There are also accounts controlled by robots. These require minimal involvement of humans. However, there are few accounts like this and bots are usually managed by humans after all.
At the same time, the behaviour of a bot, even one controlled by a human, is very different from the behaviour of real Facebook users. We identified eight characteristics of bots:
- On average bots write comments 15 times faster than humans (i. e. the average time interval between the posting of two consecutive comments is smaller).
- Over half of bots have “commenting partners” that comment on the same posts as the bot account. For real people this kind of behaviour occurs only in one of every eight cases (13%).
- Bots comment posts on political topics four times more frequently than real people.
- On average bots have four times fewer friends.
- Only 4% of bots have at least one check-in (post announcing the user’s geographical location). For humans this number is 44%.
- Only a half of bots have profile pictures with human faces as compared to 92% for humans.
- Only 20% of bots have comments responding to their posts. For humans this number is 80%.
- Only 3% of humans have no reactions to their profile pictures as compared to 43% for bots.
The information used to identify bots was collected over 9 months, from November 2018 to July 2019.
Disclaimer. We examined the contents of the bots’ comments and not the principles of how the bots are created and managed. We cannot claim that a bot that heavily comments posts about a certain politician is owned by that politician. Such a bot can be a part of a smear campaign as well.
We were also unable to identify the bots’ country of origin. It is possible that some of the bots come from other countries, including Russia.
Here are some examples of comments we identified to be written by bots
This screenshot shows that bots have learned to write comprehensive comments and are not limited to simple slogans.
We separated the sample into three parts: Facebook pages of media outlets, Facebook pages of politicians, and news posts heavily commented by bots. To choose the media outlets, we used the list of the most popular Ukrainian news websites and added the pages with the most followers from Ukraine. The resulting list included 332 Facebook pages.
The list of politicians was based on opinion polls and the number of followers. 62 pages were chosen, including 26 politicians’ personal pages and 36 pages of political movements or parties. In this article, we will focus on 5 political parties with the highest ratings. At the time the data was collected “Voice” party did not have a Facebook page.
How the news topics were chosen
News topics were chosen by Artellence using word vectors, a natural language processing instrument. An algorithm analysed the contents of posts and clustered the ones that were similar.
For instance, in early May, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman made a comment regarding the average wages in Ukraine. Articles about his remark were published on different news website with different headlines, but were the same in essence: “Groisman says minimal wages should be increased x2 in Ukraine in two years”, “When should Ukrainians expect a wages increase”, “Groisman says Ukrainians will earn $620 in 2021”, etc. Different headlines like these were defined as one piece of news by the algorithm.
Ultimately, we only picked articles about politicians that satisfied two criteria: they were posted on a large number of different Facebook pages and they were written in a similar language (this is important for automatic clustering). There were 10 such articles.
Bots on politicians’ personal pages
During our study we found some bots who posted comments on politicians’ pages regularly, i. e. they had at least five comments there over the period studied. We called them “active bots” and identified the connotation of their comments. It is worth noting that the bots can be owned either by the politician bots write positive comments about or by his opponents, with bots writing negative comments in the latter case. We did not research who the owner of different active bots was.
The politician with the biggest number of active bots, 27 926 accounts, was Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Petro Poroshenko came in second with 20 065 bots. Sviatoslav Vakarchuk ranked third, though the number of bots commenting on his page was significantly lower (823 bots). Yuliia Tymoshenko ranked fourth with 821 bots, while the fifth place went to Volodymyr Groisman (717 bots).
Politicians who had the biggest share of comments on their pages written by bots were Vadym Rabinovych (45% of all comments), Yevhen Muraiev (39%) and Ruslan Koshulynskyi (36%). The smallest share of bot-written comments was on pages of Iryna Herashchenko(0,02%), Semen Semenchenko (0,12%) and Vitalii Klychko (0,13%).
As far as the number of bots’ comments on personal pages is concerned, the leaders were Volodymyr Zelenskyi (58 350 comments out of 255 157 or 23%), Petro Poroshenko (47 750 out of 173 046 or 28%) and Yuliia Tymoshenko (24 683 out of 100 889 or 24%).
What do bots write about politicians?
Fan bots. The only politician who had more positive comments from bots than negative ones was Yuliia Tymoshenko. Out of 24 364 comments bots have written about her, 11 246 (46%) were positive ones. Meanwhile, only 24% of bot-written comments about Volodymyr Zelenskyi were positive (108 039 positive bots’ comments out of 451 895).
Hater bots. However, most of the comments about politicians were negative. For instance, 87% of comments (27 800 out of 31 926) posted about Volodymyr Groisman were negative. For Sviatoslav Vakarchuk the share of bot hate was a bit smaller, 85% (29 039 out of 34 040 bot-written comments). For both the current and the former presidents the share of negative comments was smaller, but the absolute number of them was a lot bigger. 210 828 of bots’ comments about Poroshenko were negative (61% of all comments about him). For Zelenskyi these figures are 215 491 and 48% respectively.
Actualization bots. The main goal of neutral comments is to increase the number of times a politician is mentioned, making him more recognizable and drawing attention to his work. These comments do not praise or criticize and only state facts. The biggest number of actualization comments were posted on the pages of Volodymyr Zelenskyi (128 365 comments) and Petro Poroshenko (97 171 comments), accounting for 28% of all comments posted about each of them. Bots also posted 4 091 neutral comments about Tymoshenko, (17%), while for Groisman and Vakarchuk these figures were 3 333 (10%) and 1 863 (5%) respectively.
Bots on pages of political parties and their leaders
We also examined Facebook pages of political parties with the highest ratings and their leaders to check in what context bots mention different politicians (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Share of bot-written comments on Facebook pages of politicians and their parties
Figure 2. Distribution of positive, neutral and negative bot-written comments on Facebook pages of political parties and their leaders
*Let’s explain how to read this data using the Fatherland party as an example. 37% of comments on the party’s page are written by bots. 69,8% of these bot-written comments contain positive messages about Tymoshenko, while 3% are negative towards Poroshenko and another 3% are neutral towards Zelenskyi. The rest do not contain direct mentions of politicians with a defined connotation.
Understandably, the biggest number of positive bot-written comments about any politician is posted on the page of that politician or their party. The leader in this regard was the Fatherland party: almost 70% of bot-written comments on its page praise Tymoshenko. At the same time, on Tymoshenko’s page only 26% of comments written by bots were positive.
The most negative comments were written by bots about Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Petro Poroshenko. However, there is one difference: Poroshenko was more often criticized on European Solidarity page, where 16,6% of bot-written comments were negative towards him, than on his personal page, where the share of bot-written comments negative towards him was only 5,4%. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyi was more often criticized by bots on his own page than on the Zelenskyi Team page (12% and 4,6% of negative bot-written comments respectively).
Pages of European Solidarity and Petro Poroshenko are almost symmetrical to pages of Zelenskyi Team and Volodymyr Zelenskyi. On pages of both parties and politicians bots write about them in about 75% of cases and the prevalence of positive comments is less pronounced than on pages of Fatherland and Yuliia Tymoshenko or Opposition Bloc and Yurii Boiko. The other 25% of comments on pages of Poroshenko and his party and Zelenskyi and his team are about Zelenskyi and Poroshenko respectively.
On Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s page there are marginally fewer comments about Zelenskyi and Poroshenko than about Vakarchuk himself. Moreover, the number of comments about the current and the former presidents on Vakarchuk’s page is almost equal. Another Vakarchuk’s outlier is that there are almost 1,5 times more negative comments than positive ones on his page.
Which news about politicians the bots commented the most
The more a post is commented, the more people will see it. Therefore, it is possible to inflate a news article’s viewership using bot-written comments. VoxUkraine and Artellence analysed news articles that referenced specific politicians and were posted on Facebook by prominent Ukrainian media outlets and pages that are most popular among Ukrainian users. Ultimately, we chose 10 pieces of news for analysis. We discussed how we chose them at greater length in the methodology section of this article.
Figure 3. Which news did the bots comment the most?
Three out of top 5 pieces of news that were the most heavily commented by bots (i. e. the share of bot-written comments in them was the biggest) were about comments made by Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman. His speeches usually received relatively few comments, but a significant share of them was written by bots. Bots also heavily commented on posts about events that involved Petro Poroshenko.
Groisman’s statement that there were enough funds in local budgets drew the most attention of the bots. A half of 3 217 comments posted regarding this event were written by bots. We were able to identify the main message of 56 of these comments. About a half of them belong to a category we called “distrust of Groisman”. This category consists of 24 comments, including allegations of negligence, tirades about “backward government” and other similar rhetoric.
Groisman’s speech regarding the law on unjust enrichment also gathered few comments (only 309), but 49% of them were written by bots. In this case comment section was dominated by 44 comments saying that “Groisman enriches himself”.
Articles about the interrogation of Petro Poroshenko regarding the Maidan case also was not heavily commented, but bots pushed it, posting 48% of 257 total comments made. 90 of these comments contained harsh criticism of the former president and only 4 were trying to defend him.
The biggest reaction was caused by Groisman’s comment regarding old parties. It gathered 2 765 comments from real people and 1 447 comments from bots (38%).
- Politicians with the biggest followings of active bots (bots which posted 5+ comments about them) were Volodymyr Zelenskyi (27 926 bots) and Petro Poroshenko (20 065 bots). Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, Yuliia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Groisman have much smaller followings, 823, 821 and 717 bots respectively.
- Bot-written comments about politicians were mostly negative, with Yuliia Tymoshenko being the only exception who had bots write mostly positive things about her.
- Interestingly, when posting comments on pages of political parties, bots generally wrote about their leaders. Almost all pages of politicians and political parties we have examined also had bot-written comments mentioning Zelenskyi and Poroshenko on them. However, pages of Yuliia Tymoshenko and Fatherland as well as pages of Yurii Boiko and Opposition Bloc had almost no bot-written comments mentioning other politicians.
- Comments written by bots about politicians on their opponents’ pages were mostly negative. Comments posted about Tymoshenko, Boiko and their parties on their pages were mostly positive, while for other politicians and parties we examined the distribution between positive, neutral and negative comments was almost even.
- The news articles that had the biggest share of bot-written comments were about Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman’s comments regarding unjust enrichment (49% of comments were written by bots) and old parties (38%). Bots also heavily commented on the news about Petro Poroshenko’s interrogation in the Maidan case (48% of comments were written by bots).
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations