Lee Jasper, the Respect (George Galloway) candidate for Thursday’s Croydon North by-election, today conceded that his campaign has been using controversial “Twitter bots”, programs to automatically generate Tweets, to give a false impression of the popularity of his campaign.
Use of “Twitter bombs” by the defeated Mitt Romney campaign in the US Presidential election earlier this month caused rows across the Atlantic, after the auto-generated “support” across social media disrupted conventional opinion polling, suggesting that the Republican would garner many more votes than he eventually did.
In Croydon North, bookmakers have slashed the odds on Jasper’s chances of winning, to the point of suspending betting on the by-election. It is possible that in a “weak market” – one where is not a great volume of betting, as is the case in the Croydon North by-election – social media activity can play an influential role.
Twitter bombs are a form of spam, unsolicited Twitter responses often from fake accounts which are retweeted with the help of automated computer programs, or “bots”, to get maximum distribution. Experts say that Twitter bots can lead those receiving the messages to believe there is a groundswell of opinion, when in fact, the trend is being manipulated by those generating the message.
In one US Senate election, a “tweet factory” which generated 1,000 tweets saw those messages being retweeted 60,000 times. Jeanette Castillo, a professor of communication at Florida State University, has described the use of this “astroturfing” in the US election as “nefarious tactics”.
But speaking to Inside Croydon this morning en route to another session atop his “battle bus” through the wet streets of south London, Lee Jasper seemed unconcerned, almost casual, that his Respect campaign was deliberately trying to falsify its level of support.
At first, when asked about his campaign’s use of Twitter bots, Jasper denied any knowledge of it. “I don’t know anything about all of that,” he said.
But when the Twitter bomb technique was described, Jasper admitted, “I’ve got lots of volunteers working in our IT department working on all different aspects. It’s all part of modern campaigning, and we have to use social media to get our message across.”
Late on Sunday, Respect party retweets were observed from Tunisia, Italy, Denmark, Brazil, Romania and Hereford. Asked whether he was in any way concerned at the false impression that using Twitter spam was creating, Jasper said, “The nuances of what’s acceptable in social media is too complicated for me.
“I just think you have to use everything at your disposal in an election campaign.”
The confusion over the levels of support for different parties in the by-election has been increased by the eccentric use of Twitter by Winston McKenzie, the UKIP candidate.
With McKenzie having initially denied that he was responsible for a series of homophobic Tweets early in the campaign, but having returned to the theme of same-sex marriage as an issue many times since, the @VoteWinston surpassed itself over the weekend when it appeared to encourage Croydon North residents to vote for UKIP and Respect.
Double voting might be one way of overcoming the predicted low turn-out, although last time we checked, it was still strictly illegal.
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- UKIP candidate McKenzie fails to deliver his own brothers (insidecroydon.com)
- Fake Twitter accounts and the danger for politicians (guardian.co.uk)