TAMPA, Fla. — Those in the greater Tampa Bay area may remember the case involving 21-year-old Cameron Herrin.
In 2018, Herrin was behind the wheel of the car that hit 24-year-old Jessica Raubenolt and her 21-month-old daughter, Lillia, killing them both. Investigators say he and a friend were street racing on Bayshore Boulevard at the time of the crash.
In April of this year, Herrin was convicted and sentenced by a judge to 24 years in prison. Following Herrin's sentencing, conversations about the case slowly tapered off on social media. But, in early July, a video from TikTok surfaced with clips of Herrin at his trial.
With more than 23 million views on the video, comments flooded in, with many offering support for Herrin. Some social media users said his actions were a mistake, while others claimed he did not mean to kill anyone. Some were even going as far as calling him "cute."
After going viral on TikTok, the conversation moved to Twitter where thousands of tweets called for a reduction in Herrin's sentence or for it to be vacated entirely. The tweets were accompanied by dozens of hashtags like #JusticeForCameronHerrin and the tagging of accounts including 10 Tampa Bay, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden, begging for leniency in Herrin's case.
The number of tweets with Herrin's name caused it to start trending on social media. However, experts say the thousands of "people" supporting Herrin, may not be real human beings.
"We collected data between July 19 and 20, and we found a little over 12,000 unique Twitter accounts that circulated Cameron Herrin's case," Dr. Loni Hagen said. She's an assistant professor at the University of South Florida's School of Information.
Hagen, along with her students, took those 12,000 accounts and used Botometer to scan them. Botometer is an automatic bot detection algorithm developed by researchers at Indiana University. By using machine-learning technologies, it can score accounts on Twitter, determining if they are a bot or not.
"It shows bot accounts are explaining 16-percent of accounts. Suspended, deleted, and private accounts, which turn out to be an "unknown" category by Botometer, are 75-percent of the accounts. So, human-like accounts are only 9-percent of 12,000 unique accounts," Hagen explained.
Hagen says the 75-percent of accounts labeled as "unknown" could be mostly suspended accounts, as Twitter actively suspends and deletes bot accounts. While Botometer can not say for certain what happened to those accounts, Hagen estimates up to 91-percent of Twitter accounts tweeting about Cameron Herrin could be bots. She says she determined this based on how bot accounts act on social media.
"On July 19, at 10 p.m., I see there are 2,500 tweets sent out of this unknown category, which is extremely high considering the human accounts are circulating about 100 tweets maximum," Hagen said.
So why would someone, or a group of people, make these bot accounts to support Herrin?
"Bots are fairly straightforward. They are a way of amplifying someone's voice on social media by making it look like lots of people, and I do mean people, lots of people are for or against a particular issue," said Dr. Ron Sanders, staff director at The Florida Center for Cybersecurity, also known as Cyber Florida.
Researchers say they have seen bots used to sway conversations around elections, and most recently the COVID-19 vaccine. When thousands of "voices" are supporting a stance on social media, it can cause real humans to change their opinion.
"It is extremely challenging, especially because nowadays there are so many new technologies that make it really difficult for bot detections to detect it and for human beings to find it and distinguish it from real accounts," Hagen said.
It can be difficult for scientists and even algorithms to determine who is a bot. However, researchers at Cyber Florida are trying to change that.
"The casual or unsophisticated user of social media is going to have a hard time discerning between the truth and mis — or disinformation. Misinformation is just the wrong stuff. Somebody out of ignorance posts something, or tweets, or retweets something because they don't know any better," Sanders explained. "Disinformation is deliberate, there's a political agenda in mind, somebody is trying to sway your opinion."
Partnering with New America, a think-tank based in Washington D.C., the two organizations launched the Cyber Citizenship Education partnership, helping young people determine what is real and what is fake on the internet.
"Our cyber citizenship project is designed to help educate them to help them do their own truth-seeking, to do their own due diligence, to look at the origins to see if something is generated by bots," Sanders said.
By providing tools on how to understand and identify bots, researchers hope to improve digital literacy among social media users, and in the long run, limit the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
"They can make an opinion look like it's held by thousands and thousands of people when it's not. Many of these bots are mimicking fake people. Pick an issue, if you think thousands of people are supportive of that issue and you are swayable, then you may be swayed. For the most part, the people generating those bots probably don't have your best interest at heart," Sanders said.
So, while it may seem like thousands of people are justifying the actions of Cameron Herrin, researchers say it's most likely a few people with an agenda to change your mind.
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