In The Telegraph, it was revealed that a Twitter bot @RuGovEdits had discovered that the Russian government had edited the Wikipedia page on flight MH17, the plane which was shot down earlier this month. According to The Telegraph, a tweet from the bot on 18 July 2014, translated into English, says: “Wikipedia article List of aircraft accidents in civil aviation has been edited by RTR [another name for All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK)]”.

Before we proceed, it is important to ask: what is a Twitter bot, and how is it able to catch changes on Wikipedia?

In general, bots are automated programs that serve different purposes. Twitter bots in particular are automated programs that are used to control Twitter accounts. Statistics show that Twitter has an estimated 500 million users who generate around 500 million tweets per day. However, those same statistics show that the social media platform is commonly misused for astroturfing, crowdturfing, spamming and phishing. Most of these attacks are carried out via bots.

There are a few different types of Twitter bots. A socialbot has the ability to perform basic social networking activities, such as posting a message, whereas a spambot is designed to stealthily spread spam. There are also self-declared bots or benign bots which deliver news and update feeds. Besides purely automated bots, there is also the cyborg that is to some extent controlled by a human operator.

@RuGovEdits is best categorized as a self-declared bot. However, instead of spreading news, it is used to monitor revisions made to Wikipedia by Russian government IP addresses. The source code of this bot is based on another Twitter bot called congress-edits, which performs a similar role with respect to US Congress.

Twitter bots are not new. In fact, Twitter cooperated with Multimap back in June 2007 to come up with the Multimap Twitter Bot. This bot can help Twitter users access maps, directions and local information on multimap.com by sending direct messages via Twitter. There are also a few Twitter bots, originally launched in April 2007, that are used today to provide weather forecasts and stock quotes. Apart from these, there are bots that were created to infiltrate the Twitter community. @trackgirl, a bot under the Realboy project, is designed to infiltrate the accounts of Twitter users who are running enthusiasts. Even though it is only an automated program, studies show that there are people who have developed a type of emotional connection to this bot.

Are there thousands or millions of bots out there? I can’t tell. However, a group of researchers from the College of William and Mary, Virginia has some ideas. In their research, they speculated that the ratio of humans to cyborgs to bots on Twitter is roughly 5:4:1.

If there are 500 millions Twitter users today, there are roughly 50 millions Twitter bots. This means that not all the Twitter accounts are run by humans. Who knows? Maybe some of your Twitter followers are bots?

Ultimately, just remember: be safe online!

By Ong Yew Chuan, Information Security Enthusiast

OngYewChuanBio: An information security enthusiast, Ong has 3 years of experience working in a Managed Security Services (MSS) company. He now works as a researcher in one of the public universities in Malaysia, where he focuses on security and social networks. Ong holds several professional information security certificates, including ECSA, CEH, CHFI and ITIL. Find him on Twitter (twitter.com/YCOng) and LinkedIn (my.linkedin.com/in/ongyewchuan).

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