Measuring coordinated vs. spontaneous activity in online social movements

Contributors:
  1. Camille Francois
  2. John Kelly

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Description: Social media platforms provide people all over the world with an unprecedented ability to organize around social and political causes. However, these same platforms enable institutional and organized actors to engineer fabricated social movements to advance their agenda. These “astroturfing” or “false amplification” phenomenons leverage a variety of of tools and techniques, ranging from fully automated bot activity to accounts manned by extrinsically motivated (e.g. compensated) human operators. These campaigns also range from simple spam operations to sophisticated efforts involving numerous orchestrated accounts, sometimes coordinated across linguistic and cultural clusters. While the former category is straightforward to analyze via data mining methods, sophisticated fabricated campaigns in the latter category are engineered to mask their true nature from the public. Working from the proposition that a large number of accounts controlled by a small number of coordinated entities will lack the behavioral diversity of a similar number of accounts controlled by uncoordinated individual actors, we propose a framework of signals (metrics) along three dimensions: Network: how accounts are connected to one another, and the clusters they form within the online conversation, Temporal: patterns of messaging across time in the online conversation, Semantic: an observation of the diversity of topics and meaning throughout the online conversation. We test this framework on three case studies: the online conversation on #ColumbianChemicals in the U.S., the international discussion of the #DopingLeaks event, and an analysis of political discussions in Venezuela. In all three cases, we find what we assess to be anomalous, fabricated behavior on at least one dimension.

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