Jan 16, 2017 I Brett Tingley

350k Twitter Bots Are Quoting Star Wars and No One Knows Why

Researchers from University College London’s Department of Computer Science have published a study which reports the presence the internet hasn’t felt since…July, 14 2013. That’s when the internet felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of Twitter users suddenly cried out in Star Wars quotes and were suddenly silenced. The researchers fear something terrible has happened.

These tweets are side-by-side. Twitter bots always tweet single file to hide their numbers.

Ok, maybe not terrible, but mysterious. The recently-published open source paper discusses the discovery of over 350,000 seemingly automated Twitter accounts which sprang up between June and July 2013. Every single one of the accounts began immediately quoting sometimes incomplete lines from the Star Wars extended universe novels with random hashtags inserted, such as this gem:

Luke’s answer was to put on an extra burst of speed. There were only ten meters #separating them now. If he could cover t

The accounts were discovered when the researchers, Juan Echeverria and Shi Zhou, took a random sample of 1% of all Twitter accounts in order to study a completely different area of research. They created a geographic distribution map of the accounts, and found a large percent of them were grouped together into curiously uniform rectangles. That's when things got interesting.

Bots love right angles.

After manually sifting through these strange accounts, they discovered they all followed the same unique behavior of quoting random Star Wars lines. The researchers believe this “botnet” avoided detection because of their highly sophisticated design and behaviors:

[...] it seems the Star Wars bots were deliberately designed to circumvent many of the heuristics underlying previous bot detection methods. For example, contrary to previous assumptions, the Star Wars bots don’t have any URLs in their tweets, they never mention or reply to other users, and they only follow a small number of friends.

While it’s a little funny that a massive and complex network of automated accounts has done nothing but quote 2,422,013 lines from obscure science fiction novels, the reality of its existence should be quite worrying to not only computer scientists and cybersecurity professionals, but anyone who uses the internet. The fact that such a huge, sophisticated botnet could dodge Twitter’s anti-bot systems means that similar systems could be lurking in cyberspace, waiting to carry out hypothetical attacks against any manner of networks. The owners and true intention of this network remain unknown.

So-called botnets work with the help of command and control (C&C) infrastructure which allows them to take control over any number of infected machines.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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