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How Botnet Accounts are Manipulating Music Industry Contests and Recommendation Engines

New Knowledge

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Feb 14, 2019

No industry is impervious to coordinated attacks online. But did you think the music industry would be a target? New Knowledge has discovered botnet activity in the music industry piggybacking on the popular British rock band, Coldplay.

Last year, our team discovered a network of several hundred automated Twitter accounts targeting various MTV contests that are driven by public voting online, including the Verano MTV contest (#veranomtv2018), and the MTV Hottest Summer Superstar contest (#mtvhottest), and the Teen Choice Awards (#teenchoice), all of which are driven by Twitter “votes” using hashtags.

Verano MTV (#veranomtv2018) is a Spanish language contest wherein fans can vote for their favorite music video of the summer; MTV Hottest Summer Superstar contest (#mtvhottest) is a similar contest targeted at the UK market. Both contests asked users to tweet the name of a musician in the contest, along with the contest hashtag.

The botnet we identified appears designed to inflate the overall vote totals of these two contests by spamming them with fake votes while disproportionately supporting specific artists. This dissemination of fraudulent vote information across a social media platform is a species of coordinated disinformation, and it has real world impact on the perceived value of bands, musicians and their brands.

Anatomy of a Living Botnet: The Coldplay Network

New Knowledge has discovered a still active botnet of algorithmically-created Twitter accounts used to cast votes for various bands in the #mtvhottest contest. Within this botnet, there is evidence of coordinated automated activity designed to influence voting tallies. Interestingly, there is a quirky, and frankly humorous pattern to the entire network’s account names; they all begin with a portion of a name of a Coldplay song, and the word “cold, Such as with “_troublecold”. When we look at the timing patterns of the account creation and their posting activity, we see that accounts were created in batches and often post synchronously, or along obvious time patterns, indicating they originated from and are controlled by an algorithm. They were initially discovered because of their similarity in posting frequency. In addition, the Tweets sent from these accounts bear obvious similarities such as using the same textual and image content in posts and profile. Many of the accounts use one of five Coldplay-themed header images.

Just How “Social” is Music?

This effort to influence shouldn’t come as any surprise. Just the sheer volume of social media activity and content about music and coupled with the amount of social media accounts and activity believed or known to be fraudulent or manipulated, it was only a matter of time.

In general, the music Industry and social media are more connected than ever.

  • 47 percent of Facebook’s daily users like a music artist or band on the platform.
  • 90 percent of social media users engage with music or musicians – by viewing videos or posts featuring musicians, liking or sharing a musician’s post, discovering music or sharing music.
  • 53 percent of Twitter users are viewing or interacting with trending topics or want to view posts from friends.
  • Nearly the same number, 51 percent are using Twitter to follow or get updates from music artists and bands
  • Half of Instagram users view posts from artists and bands, or view their updates.

*Based on a MusicWatch study titled “Music & Social Media; A Consumer Perspective”. The study was conducted in April 2018 to 800 social media users.

Couple those numbers with these:

  • Brand manipulation is a systemic issue on the internet. An estimated 50 million Twitter accounts –or one in every 14– are fake.
  • One in three consumers will take his business elsewhere if they disapprove of a company’s behavior.
  • False info is 70 percent more likely to be shared on social media that accurate info

Why is This Important?

Manipulating a voting system via artificially generated and duplicated content posted against Twitter hashtags is gaming a contest and likely also gaming recommendation engines and is tantamount to algorithms telling the masses what is popular, while pretending to be responsive to human preferences. Ideally, people will tell an industry what it likes, what is popular and the press and music companies would respond. But if a recommendation algorithm can be manipulated to control who appears to be winning the most votes in a contest, it can be gamed to manipulate who shows up in your You Might Also Like list. Who wants the Botnet Choice Awards?

If A = B and B = C…

While it’s enjoyable to consider and investigate a botnet whose account names recycle the entire lyric set of Coldplay songs, the statistics create a disturbing paradigm. If social media is widely connected to music, and if Coldplay is one of the top-selling bands worldwide of all time, and if botnets can easily and quickly manipulate an online contest by spamming votes via social media for Coldplay and other brands, then we have a vulnerable distributed voting system. The ripple effects could even be economic.

This data suggests coordinated online manipulation of a social media platform (Twitter) can affect musician visibility and possibly influence music streaming platform metrics. While royalties from streaming are far less than royalties from sales or traditional radio airplay, they still add up, especially for a band –or brand– like Coldplay. Influence streaming and you might manipulate payments.

Preventative Measures

The social media platforms, streaming companies and production companies who engineer concerts and contests may need to be in better control of their voting processes, proactively preventing manipulation. Record labels are not far behind in the responsibility chain. Detection of fraudulent activity in contests that tally votes using social media can be monitored and mitigated with proper tools and processes in place.

Why Bother?

In a word “credibility.” The music industry was turned on its ear when Shawn Fanning created Napster, illuminating the simple fact that people wanted easier, cheaper access to music in digital formats. The music industry has an opportunity to now to be proactive, not reactive, and to get ahead of computational abuse and manipulation.

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