“A large number of Twitter users are bots. They can send spam, manipulate public opinion, and contaminate the Twitter API stream that underline so many research works. One of the major challenges of research on Twitter bots is the lack of ground truth data,” the study reports. “Here we report our discovery of the Star Wars botnet with more than 350k bots.”
Bots can pose a significant threat to the Twitter network beyond just spamming. They are capable of manipulating which topics trend, which opinions are given the most attention, astroturfing, and sample contamination. The study noted that “the fact that the Star Wars botnet has so many bots makes its potential threats serious, perhaps more serious than we have ever seen before.”
Researchers found that the botnet was created in 2013, and, until now, remained hidden on the network. While it appears to currently be dormant, the study found that it may have been dormant for a reason, and still poses a significant threat, as it is thought to be the largest single Twitter botnet uncovered.
“It is irresponsible to assume that the botmaster does not have any cynical or malign purpose. In fact, the best we can hope for is that the botnet was created purely for commercial gains. It is known that pre-aged bots could be sold at a premium on the black market,” the study reports. “This means the Star Wars bots are perfectly suited to be sold as fake followers because they are already three years old and therefore more ‘valuable.’ Indeed, we have observed that up to 15k Star Wars bots have been following a small number of Twitter users outside the botnet.”
Researchers have so far been unable to determine who created the botnet, and who, if anyone, has control of it presently.