Jeremy Corbyn and the sexbots: One day in #GE2017

Jeremy Corbyn has made the Labour Party sexy - not just in the eyes of pundits, who have praised his appeal to formerly apathetic young voters, but also among online pornography vendors.

In the final week before the UK election, as a worked-up electorate argued loudly on Twitter about the party leaders' TV debate, a group of new voices joined in the chorus of disapproval.

"#WhereIsTheresa," asked a user with a profile name Linda Hopkins. "#TheresaMay is doing her best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?"

"The more visceral & biased campaign against #JeremyCorbyn the more convinced I am in my #Labour vote will be worthwhile," said Cole Galloway.

Autumn Joseph was less convinced but still quite swayed: "I've switched off #BBCDebate but #JeremyCorbyn was articulate and made sense. I remain #Undecided #GE2017."

It turns out, following a Bureau analysis, that these three accounts - alongside dozens of others - have more in common than simply an interest in the election. All were created on the same day, May 30. All of them tweeted just once - a retweet about one of the party leaders. And all of them had a variant of the same phrase included in their Twitter bio: "If you like my body live cam with me." The offer to engage in virtual erotic activity was accompanied by a weblink.

The Bureau found the network of accounts by analysing 40,000 tweets mentioning Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May between May 31 and June 4. We found that 68 of them followed the template described above.

The links in the account bios redirected curious viewers to a series of pages on Tumblr, a popular image-based blogging platform. Less than a fortnight later, this entire group of Twitter users and the Tumblr accounts they linked to had been shut down, and some of the links replaced by Twitter's generic "unsafe link" notification.

The account network evidently acted as a short-lived honeypot hoping to attract Twitter users to the Tumblr pages, as they mingled unobtrusively with tens of thousands of other accounts tweeting about Corbyn, May and the election.

How bots, fake news and money mix and mingle

The discovery offers a snapshot of the marketing possibilities lurking within social media and how these economic incentives tie into the contemporary scourge of "fake news".

As automated Twitter accounts - known as "bots" - become more sophisticated, it is becoming hard to tell them apart from real people. It is impossible to say with certainty how many of the 40,000 tweets gathered by the Bureau were machine-generated, though several of the most prolific tweeters we surveyed did indeed appear to be fully human. 

This particular network of 68 bots was clearly visible to us when we looked - but there may have been many more fake accounts exploiting the election.

Social media accounts - especially newly-created ones - are widely available for a small fee. A thousand "non-phone-verified" Twitter accounts can be purchased for as little as $180 - less than 15p each. Higher-quality fake accounts - phone-verified and with a profile picture - can be a dollar each. "Aged" accounts, created years ago rather than yesterday, can cost several dollars apiece, and much more if they come with a substantial number of followers.

Tumblr accounts, too, are readily created and managed using specific software packages. "Massive amounts of Traffic, Easily Attainable," says one such service provider. "Get focused. Earn coin."

In this case, the network seems to have been quickly neutralised by Twitter and Tumblr's anti-bot algorithms. All of the accounts traced by the Bureau tweeted only once - whether deliberately, or because they were rapidly shut down, is impossible to say. But the fact that someone bothered to set them up suggests that the market is there and exploiting it is economically viable.