If you’ve ever speculated that Trump’s followers might just be a bunch of mindless robots (or Russians), it turns out there’s some validity to that suspicion – at least in the social media world.

Researchers from Italy recently found that a significant number of Trump’s Instagram followers are, in fact, bots – or Russians. Or, you guessed it, Russian bots.

To reach this conclusion, security researchers Andrea Stroppa, Richard Hutta, Bernardo Parrella and Danny di Stefano first had to figure out how to get around Instagram’s stringent controls over downloading and analyzing data. They did this using their own software (now available to all on Github) and avoided getting banned by Instagram by creating thousands of accounts and internet proxies.

“Data mining requires you to download a lot of data and if Instagram will suspect that you are doing that just from one account, you will get banned,” Hutta told Forbes.

At that point, they were able to figure out which accounts were likely bots and which were likely Russians. They had to filter Trump’s 2.5 million followers between September and October down to 496,109 suspicious accounts (those that had been dormant for 90 days or more, had been suspended or were created by software.) The researchers determined that 75 percent of that 496,109 were created by a program, meaning about 15 percent of Trump’s followers were bots.

With the help of a text analysis algorithm, the researchers then identified 25,967 users whose posts were written in Russian in at least five per cent of their posts. Of those, 2,979 mentioned Russian social network VK in their profile and 910 included a phone number with the Russian country code. An additional 4,963 user profiles included a phone number with the Russia country code, even though their posts were written entirely in English.

“Russian propaganda is written in English to make some impact,” said Hutta.

“We made our algorithm mark accounts as Russian as soon as any Azbuka letter [from Russia's Cyrillic script] is detected in user media or biography. That means that an account can appear to be English but it is probably coming from Russia.”

The researchers also monitored Trump follower activities over the last 30 days, observing all posts with hashtags like #trumptrain and #hillaryforprison. What they discovered was that the most active accounts were those that appeared to be Russian, which were behind 17,990 posts.

The researchers added, however, that there’s no direct evidence of Russian government involvement.

“To be sure, we cannot establish with certainty whether those Russian accounts on Instagram are directly linked to the Kremlin or rather are just local fans of Donald Trump,” added the researchers.

“However, it is increasingly clear that some online activities are producing a significant impact on the current U.S. presidential campaign.”

Trump's social media activity has played a starring role in the election season, with his explosive Twitter rants often taking center stage in debates and on prominent news platforms alike.

With mere hours until Election Day, it was recently reported that the Republican presidential candidate has had his Twitter privileges taken away by campaign staff members. 

President Barack Obama ribbed the candidate over this campaign decision at a recent speaking engagement in Kissimmee, Florida, telling the crowd: "If somebody starts tweeting at 3 in the morning because SNL made fun of you, then you can't handle the nuclear codes."

h/t Forbes, CNET

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