Science and Technology

How to Catch a Bot on Twitter

June 14, 2018  • Ash Bhat

Ash Bhat is a tech entrepreneur working on projects around social impact. In 2017, he co-launched RoBhat Labs, which focuses on tackling the spread of misinformation. He will speak in the Aspen Ideas Festival program track, Staying Human in a High-Tech World. Below he describes his motivation to fight fake news on social media.

You and your partner Rohan Phadte created a solution to catching bots on Twitter. Tell me about your efforts, and the motivation behind going after purveyors of fake information.

As students at UC Berkeley, we’ve seen the effects of fake news first hand. The impetus for our efforts around fighting fake news stemmed from the Milo protests at school. In 2017, people protested, some violently, against a planned speech by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. The school decided to cancel the presentation. The next day, as we helped our classmates clean up trash left from the protest, we watched conspiracy theories fly online that ranged from the school’s student body practicing violence on innocent people to protesters getting paid to revolt.

The discrepancy between reality and the news being shared online was scary. We felt helpless and defenseless that we, as students, were being held responsible in conversations in which we had no voice. Even more horrifying was how far the misinformation spread — all the way to the president of the United States. As engineers, Rohan and I knew we had to do something.

When you were a junior, you dropped out of high school (against your parents’ wishes). Soon thereafter you were making six-figures working at 1StudentBody. What was the experience like — being so young and so successful?

My parents were naturally concerned that I’d be leaving the safety and comfort a more traditional path provided. However, having a financial safety net unshackled me from the traditional worries that came with high school.

In addition, the early career opportunity gave me the confidence and freedom to dive into areas I was curious about. Later, when I decided to go to Berkeley, these early experiences impacted how I approached deciding what to study. Eventually, I created my own interdisciplinary major at Berkeley around Computer Science, Philosophy, and Sociology.

At UC Berkeley you were inspired to create the bot detector. How is the work you’re doing pushing back against Russian, or other actors’, interference in the digital space?

Technology and automation are being used to amplify a variety of viewpoints on social media. One example is propaganda. Our work with the bot detector has informed media companies, political groups, and average internet users about the spread of misinformation. Our work has also identified numerous bots on Twitter.

You also created NewsBot, a Facebook Messenger app that reveals the political leanings of news articles. What role does tech have in tackling the spread of fake news and information?
Tech is to blame for creating this situation and has a responsibility to fix it. The same technology we created to inform and connect people is being used to confuse and divide us. Our belief is the solution to the problem of fake news exists in technology and we’re actively trying to build tools to combat it.

In your opinion, are Twitter and Facebook doing enough to combat the proliferation of fake information on their platforms?

I think Facebook and Twitter have started taking steps in the right direction in the last few months. They’ve allocated resources to moderate problem areas and are being more proactive about removing bots. So, there are signs that these big companies are starting to take active measures against the spread of fake information. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.

What’s your next project?

Through our company, RoBhat Labs, Rohan and I are working to create preventative solutions to eradicate fake news. We’ve built ways to monitor the spread of misinformation by bots on Twitter, but now we’d like to build tools for organizations. These tools will allow organizations to actively defend themselves when under attack by misinformation.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute. This post originally appeared on the Aspen Ideas Festival site.

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