Adult chat room with no bots

Silicon Valley is only beginning to reckon with the proliferation of people trying to unhinge democracy by digital means.On Twitter, that looks like networks of bots propagating fake news, dragging the level of political discussion into the sewer, and creating the illusion of widespread movements where there is none.All her tweets were retweets: an anti-Hillary tweet from Julian Assange, sensational pro-life news, a gloating tweet (“BOOM!”) about federal immigration raids that will punish California for protecting undocumented immigrants. On Twitter, it’s hard to sort out propaganda bot accounts—seemingly ordinary users or organizations that are actually automated by software—from real people using the website.Both are sons of Indian transplants to Silicon Valley, and eagerly took advantage of a techlandia upbringing.Bhat, the more outgoing of the two, wrangled an invite to dine with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak at Mandarin Gourmet in Cupertino, while Phadte interned during high school at NASA’s Ames Research Center.But the very existence of their project raises an important question: If two volunteer data science students who are barely out of their teens can figure out how to hang out Twitter’s bad-actor bots, why doesn’t Twitter do the same?

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This week, the duo launched a Google Chrome browser extension that inserts a button onto every Twitter profile and tweet that reads, snappily, “” Click it, and you get a diagnosis of whether the account appears to be run by a person or by some sort of automation, based on the duo’s own machine learning model.In September, Senate and House intelligence committees hauled Twitter reps into a closed-door briefing about the bots gaming their platform.This week, Twitter will again testify in congressional hearings—public ones—alongside Facebook and Google.Back in Berkeley, Bhat tells me earnestly that “by making data available for other fellow Americans” their project is “pushing back” against Russian interference.Their model isn’t without ethical issues; for instance, a Twitter user who is falsely identified as a bot has little recourse to dispute the charges.Two days before real-life troll Milo Yiannopoulos would descend on UC Berkeley’s campus in September, Ash Bhat and Rohan Phadte were sizing up a railing partisan on Twitter from their college apartment.


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