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How can you tell between a bot and a die-hard?

Published Aug. 4, 2018

Nina Tomasieski logs on to Twitter before the sun rises. Seated at her dining room table with a nearby TV constantly tuned to Fox News, the 70-year-old grandmother spends up to 14 hours a day tweeting the praises of President Donald Trump and his political allies, particularly those on the ballot this fall, and deriding their opponents.

Tomasieski's part of a dedicated band of Trump supporters who tweet and retweet Keep America Great messages thousands of times a day.

"Time to walk away Dems and vote RED in the primaries," she tweeted, adding, "Say NO to socialism & hate."

While her goal is to advance the agenda of a president she adores, she and her friends have been swept up in an expanded effort by Twitter and other social media companies to crack down on nefarious tactics used to meddle in the 2016 election.

And without meaning to, the tweeters have demonstrated the difficulty such crackdowns face — particularly when it comes to telling a political die-hard from a surreptitious computer robot.

Last week, Facebook said it had removed 32 fake accounts apparently created to manipulate U.S. politics — efforts that may be linked to Russia.

Twitter and other sites also have targeted automated or robot-like accounts known as bots, which authorities say were used to cloak efforts by foreign governments and political bad actors in the 2016 elections.

But the screening has repeatedly and erroneously flagged Tomasieski and users like her.

Their accounts have been suspended or frozen for "suspicious" behavior — apparently because of the frequency and relentlessness of their messages. When they started tweeting support for a conservative lawmaker in the GOP primary for Illinois governor this spring, news stories warned of right-wing "propaganda bots."

"Almost all of us are considered a bot," says Tomasieski, who lives in Tennessee but is tweeting for GOP candidates across the U.S.

The actions have drawn criticism from conservatives, who have accused Twitter, Facebook and other companies of having a liberal bias and censorship. It also raises a question: Can the companies outsmart the ever-evolving tactics of U.S. adversaries if they can't be sure who's a robot and who's Nina?

"It's going to take a really long time, I think years, before Twitter and Facebook and other platforms are able to deal with a lot of these issues," said Timothy Carone, who teaches technology at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.

The core problem is that people are coming up with new ways to use the platforms faster than the companies can manage them, he said.

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