A Simulated Cyberattack on Twitter: Assessing Partisan Vulnerability to Spear Phishing and Disinformation ahead of the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

Michael Bossetta

State-sponsored "bad actors" increasingly weaponize social media platforms to launch cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns during elections. Social media companies, due to their rapid growth and scale, struggle to prevent the weaponization of their platforms. This study conducts an automated spear phishing and disinformation campaign on Twitter ahead of the 2018 United States Midterm Elections. A fake news bot account - the @DCNewsReport - was created and programmed to automatically send customized tweets with a "breaking news" link to 138 Twitter users, before being restricted by Twitter. Overall, one in five users clicked the link, which could have potentially led to the downloading of ransomware or the theft of private information. However, the link in this experiment was non-malicious and redirected users to a Google Forms survey. In predicting users' likelihood to click the link on Twitter, no statistically significant differences were observed between right-wing and left-wing partisans, or between Web users and mobile users. The findings signal that politically expressive Americans on Twitter, regardless of their party preferences or the devices they use to access the platform, are at risk of being spear phishing on social media.

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