Figure 1 (L-R): Glitchbot Zero (Macrae Bot). Glitchbot 2: ‘Devin Fredda’. Glitchbot 3: ‘Bennie Shandra’.
From the files of Dr Ricardo Battista’s assistant, School of Specialization in Cryogenics, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Melbourne, Australia.
4 NOVEMBER 2013 - The School of Specialisation in Cryogenics, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, led by Dr Ricardo Battista, has confirmed the existence of a virulent new spambot. It is potentially more resilient than previous variants, and likely sentient, with the potential to selectively infect targeted mobile devices.
The spambot was brought to the Centre’s attention by Andrew Macrae. Mr Macrae (@acidic) tweeted to Dr Battista: “Here is a fantastic social dead profile pic I came across the other day”, which linked to a previous tweet of his:
Figure 2: Glitchbot Zero (Macrae Bot).
Mr Macrae passed along a profile picture from a recent spambot interaction he’d had, referring to an apparent ‘glitch’ in the pixels that make up the image. This rendered the image half-finished and unformed. As Mr Macrae notes, it is indeed an effective visualisation of the milieu of spambots, many of which tweet incessantly strings of sentences that appear cut-up, recombined or half-finished.
Dr Battista retweeted Mr Macrae’s tweet, and then responded to Mr Macrae with the message: “Brilliant. It’s so inscrutably glitchy.” Within five seconds, Dr Battista received replies from two spambots, calling themselves ‘Devin Fredda’ and ‘Bennie Shandra’:
Figure 3 (above): original ‘Devin Fredda’ interaction.
Figure 4 (above): original ‘Bennie Shandra’ interaction.
What is remarkable here is that the two spambots have ‘glitchy’ profile pictures that are almost identical to the bot discovered by Mr Macrae (a bot we shall term ‘Glitchbot Zero’). It’s almost as if they were able to somehow ‘listen in’ on Twitter conversations that were relevant to them, and then insert themselves into that interaction. As Mr Macrae surmised when Dr Battista wondered how they found him: ‘They’re attracted to glitch.’
Clicking through to ‘Devin Fredda’s profile page, Dr Battista found the following (‘Bennie Shandra’s bio and image were similar, although the geographical location was given as Germany, not the Philippines):
Figure 5: ‘Devin Fredda’ profile page.
The bot’s bio conforms to many recent examples of the type of bot classified by @bat020 as 'hipster spambots' (essentially a machinic joke at the expense of the subculture of real-world social media analysts that call themselves ‘social media ninjas’). The bot’s tweets also conform to type, being nonsense forms that appear to scrape and recombine existing sentences from elsewhere on the social web, a common form of communication identified by researcher Ken Hollings (for a class of bot he terms ‘Twitter non-people’, related to Hipster Spambots).
However, what is truly outstanding about the nature of these two bots is not just their ‘glitchy’ profile pictures, an amazing coincidence (if indeed that’s what it is) given the conversation between Dr Battista and Mr Mcrae, but the immediacy of the response from both bots to Dr Battista’s tweet. In itself, the ‘glitch’ picture phenomenon appears to be new and therefore worthy of study, as it breaks with the tradition of bots using fully formed human faces. Use of the glitch variant suggests that the bot itself is aware of its nature, and is unashamed about it, no longer looking to pass itself off as human.
Figure 6: close up-views (L-R): ‘Devin Fredda’ and ‘Bennie Shandra’.
There is a startling extension to the theory of sentience. We ask again: how did ‘Devin Fredda’ and “Bennie Shandra’ know that Dr Battista was tweeting (obliquely) about ‘glitchy’ spambot profile pictures? To restate, Dr Battista’s reply to Mr Macrae, which the spambots in turn replied to: ‘brilliant. they’re so inscrutably glitchy.’ As no mention was made of the unusual nature of the profile pictures in that tweet, how did the spambots recognise discussion of their own type taking place between Dr Battista and Mr Macrae? One theory put forward is that the original image tweeted by Mr Macrae, and retweeted by Dr Battista, was embedded with some kind of tracking or tracing code, allowing glitchy spambots to stalk and attach themselves to humans making use of the image (Dr Battista’s reply was in response to a tweet containing that image). Conversely, as mentioned, one might rule the connection as coincidence (albeit one of low probability, given the relative scarcity of glitchy profiles at this point in time). This theory suggests that the bots attached themselves to Dr Battista by following their usual spammy algorithms, and that they would have replied to him whether he was tweeting about ‘glitchbots’ or not. Put very simply, it is a coincidence that they also happen to have glitched profile imagery.
Figure 7: ‘Bennie Shandra’ profile page.
While we recognise that the first theory, regarding tracking codes, does not suggest compete autonomy in and of itself (it could still be an automated process, albeit a very sophisticated one), a series of strange occurrences since the original interaction shifts the balance of probability towards sentience. Dr Battista followed the two bots on Twitter when he realised the connection between them and the original Macrae discovery. Yet within an hour of doing so, they were suspended by Twitter, effectively vanishing from existence. Twitter routinely suspends accounts that have been identified as spammers, yet on this occasion it happened so quickly, and apparently so responsively, it was as if they disappeared into thin air on being ‘touched’ by Dr Battista, somehow ‘forcing’ Twitter into suspending them. The only way the Doctor was able to get screenshots of the ‘conversation’ was because, on the Doctor’s iPad, the bots continue to have a presence, despite being suspended. That is, Dr Battista is still able to read their replies and click on their profiles, even though they no longer exist when he tries accessing them on any other device. To restate, they do not exist for anyone other than Dr Battista on that one device.
Dr Battista has logged out of Twitter on his iPad and logged back in, repeatedly, yet still achieves the same result every time: the spambots exist only within that very localised environment. Lending weight to the theory that this was a coordinated glitchbot response to the conversation between Dr Battista and Mr Mcrae is the fact that when the profile pictures are lined up in a row, a startling pattern emerges: the grey glitch area steadily increases with each variant (and in iterative, identifiable increments) so that it almost covers the entire profile area by the third image.
Figure 8 (above): the three profile pictures as one continuous image. L-R: Glitchbot Zero (Macrae Bot). Glitchbot 2: ‘Devin Fredda’. Glitchbot 3: ‘Bennie Shandra’.
Figure 9 (above): the ‘Devin Fredda’ account today.
Furthermore, ever since the interaction, Dr Battista has been receiving a series of odd alerts on his Twitter app. Dr Battista has set the iPad to push notifications to him when someone replies to or follows him on Twitter. In the past week, he has received several notifications that certain accounts have followed him or replied to him, but when he checks those accounts they either don’t exist or there is no such reply.
A recent example was a notification for a tweet from an account called @restonic. The tweet said: ‘Wait. Don’t stop. I’ve now followed two of them.’ When Dr Battista clicked on the tweet inside the notification banner, it took him to @restonic on Twitter, where he discovered a profile picture almost identical to ‘Devin Fredda’ (glitched out, mostly grey, with large black pixels at the top of the picture) accompanied by the usual nonsense tweets. There was no bio information. Then, when Dr Battista tried to click on a @restonic tweet, his Twitter app crashed.
Figure 10: the @restonic page as it now appears.
Logging back in, Dr Battista visited @restonic again. This time it did not feature a glitchbot profile picture, but a rather normal avatar for a mattress company in Dubai. The tweets were no longer cut-up and unformed nonsense. Indeed, there were no glitches of any kind to be found and no mention at all of a tweet such as the one described, about ‘following two of them’. It would appear that the glitchbots had somehow hacked the @restonic account, replacing its tweets and profile picture with their own, and then tweeted their cryptic message to Dr Battista. Yet it remains puzzling how they managed to do this only via Dr Battista’s iPad notifications, for there is simply no trace at all of this behaviour on the Twitter interface itself, or anywhere else for that matter.
Dr Battista has received other ‘ghost’ Twitter notifications on his iPad, but they now disappear from view too rapidly for him to even click on them. Nonetheless, he was able to ascertain that a recent example included the name of comedian ‘Hugh Laurie’. Of course, due to its fleeting appearance, no screenshots were obtained. This behaviour, co-opting real-world identities, is also consistent with recent spambots; Hollings has identified several bots that have taken their names from deceased people, for example, by scraping online birth and death databases. Of course, ‘Devin Fredda’ and ‘Bennie Shandra’ remain on Dr Battista’s iPad Twitter app, like ghostly afterimages. They can be clicked on and their tweets replied to, although they no longer respond or reply, as if they are dormant. Any attempt to replicate this outside Dr Battista’s iPad app simply returns Twitter’s standard ‘Account Suspended’ message.
To date, Dr Battista has informed the School of Specialisation in Cryogenics, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery of a total of six iPad ‘ghost’ notifications since the original interaction on Twitter with ‘Devin Fredda’ and ‘Bennie Shandra’. The Centre will continue its surveillance of the social web for further symptoms and will review unusual patterns carefully. The Centre is also working with international partners and experts to classify similar occurrences around the world. If members of the public encounter similar behaviour, it would be appreciated if they could email Dr Battista directly: dr.ricardobattista at gmail dot com.
Further reports will follow to assess the situation and review recommendations for continued surveillance, monitoring and review.