Social media platform Twitter can be a confusing and dangerous space as it allows account holders to use aliases or to pretend to be someone else.
For example, an infamous tweet prematurely announcing the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela went viral as it looked legitimate. Ostensibly from former tabloid editor and Britain’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan, the “m” in @piersmorgan had been sneakily switched with an “n”.
In this guide, we help you navigate the Twitterverse with free and easy-to-use tools, plus advice and tips.
Inspect an account’s history
Foller.me provides deep insight into different aspects of any Twitter account, like the accounts historic activity and when it’s most active. Since Twitter regularly deletes bots and problem accounts, the longer an account has been around, the more likely it is to be genuine.
Hoaxsters often start an account to take advantage of a breaking story. Be sceptical therefore of a new account which has hardly tweeted before.
Another insight that Foller.me provides is the following-to-follower-ratio. This activity helps you ascertain whether an account’s activity is human or bot-like. Look for unusual patterns, such as accounts that tweet at set times, or which are inactive for long periods before suddenly “waking up” and sending a flurry of tweets, only to fall silent again.
To use the tool, type in the @name you want to check and click “analyze”. You’ll find a simple explanation next to each section that explains how to analyse the information provided.
Tip: The number of times an account has been added to a list by others users is an indication of credibility. But, conversely, a low number of listings does not necessarily indicate a lack of credibility.
South Africans learned in 2017 how the influential Gupta family deployed bots – programmed online robot accounts – to wage online war against anyone perceived as their or former president Jacob Zuma’s enemies.
The free tools Botometer and BotOrNot can help you sniff out these accounts. Both examine the behaviour of a Twitter account and look for bot-like behaviour. This includes not generating original content and just retweeting and sharing other accounts’ tweets. Another dead giveaway is when an account has very few followers, yet regularly garners a high number of retweets when they tweet.
Be aware that these tools are not perfect. When a real people don’t have a proper Twitter avatar and biography, or if they are lurkers who seldom tweets or only retweet, they might be classified as a bot.
Use these tools only as an indication, rather than absolute confirmation, that an account is a bot.
Botometer checks if a user is a bot, or how many of their followers or accounts they follow are bots. Hit enter and a speedometer-like graphic will tell you what the tool has found out. The lower the score, the less likely an account is to be a bot, while higher scores indicate that the account could be a bot.BotOrNot is similar to Botometer. Click on “start now” and it will analyse your account and tell you how many people who follow you, and who you follow, exhibit bot-like behaviour.
Here is an analysis of my own Twitter account which indicates that most of my followers and accounts I’m following are real. The tool is not perfect as I know for sure some accounts it identified as “fake” are actually not.
- Who is tweeting? It’s essential to verify the credibility of the source of a tweet before sharing it. Is it from a credible person or publication, a journalist, or just a member of the public? Or is it from a parody account or a comedian? Parody accounts often state they are one in their biography, but sometimes they don’t. If a website or blog is listed in the biography, check it out.
- Does the account have a blue tick? One sure-fire way of verifying an account – especially those of famous people – is to check for a blue tick next to the name. This tick means that Twitter has verified that they are who they say they are. Be especially cautious about a tweet ostensibly from a famous person’s account that doesn’t have this tick. For example, @GwedeMantashe1, set up in July 2013, has a blue tick confirming it’s the account of South Africa’s new mineral resources minister, while @Gwede_Mantashe, set up in July 2012, is not.
- Google the tweeter. Check whether the person is active on other social media platforms. Be cautious if you can’t find much about them – openness is a sign of credibility. If they use a pseudonym without a photograph of themselves, be wary.
Tip: People often use the same name or handle across platforms. So search for their Twitter-handle without the @ sign.
- Inspect the timeline. What were the account’s previous tweets about? Based on this, ask yourself if the person can credibly know what he or she is talking about. For example, when US Navy Seals attacked terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan in 2011, the first indication of it was from a tweet from an IT techie who lived in the town. By looking at Sohaib Athar’s timeline, it was clear from his tweets about his day-to-day life that he was who his biography said he was.
- Look for context. If someone shares their location, check that it matches up with the information being tweeted. Be wary if the tweet’s location is Cape Town, for example, but the post is about an incident in London.
- Beware of date & time stamp. Some free tools can help users make up fake tweets – so beware! If it sounds crazy or unlikely that a person, especially someone famous, would have sent the tweet, rather err on the side of caution by not sharing it. Some fake tweet generators don’t include a timestamp, so the absence of one is a sure-fire indication that it’s fake.
- Search for related tweets. If someone is tweeting about a major event like an explosion in Paris, others will be tweeting about it too. So if you can’t find other tweets about the incident, something’s up.
- Monitor follow-ups. People often post follow-up tweets, sometimes with pictures and videos, when they’re eyewitnesses to an event. Cross-checking it with other pictures or videos from a scene will help you verify whether the tweet is first-hand.
- Check out the followers. It’s cheap and easy to buy fake followers. Be cautious when a tweeter has a large following, but many tweet in different languages.
- Watch out for ‘real’ in a handle. With a few exceptions – US president @realDonaldTrump is one – the presence of “real” or “the real” in a Twitter handle is a red flag. Ask yourself why a news organisation or famous person would need to add it.
Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
— Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) May 1, 2011
Finally, and I can’t say this often enough, some of this is on you: Your default should be not to share a tweet unless you’re sure of its credibility.
Raymond Joseph is a freelance journalist, journalism trainer and media consultant.
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