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To detect these bots, the researchers looked at political tweets from the three days surrounding the first presidential debate.

They deemed tweets "political" if they contained political hashtags, like #MAGA, #StrongerTogether, or #Debates2016. They then used those hashtags to determine whether the tweet swings pro-Trump, pro-Clinton, or neutral.

Finally, they separated the bots from real Twitter users. They filtered out accounts that sent an average of 50 or more tweets per day and used Twitter's "back end" system, called the API.

"Based on our previous research … anyone that's tweeting more than 50 times a day using the API is more likely to be an app or a bot," Woolley told Revelist.

The researchers found something groundbreaking when they filtered out the bots.

Trump won the numbers game by far: Users sent 1,762,012 pro-Trump tweets over the three-day period, and only 612,732 pro-Clinton tweets. But according to the researchers, almost a third of those pro-Trump tweets were sent by bots — not real people.

By contrast, only one-fifth of the pro-Clinton tweets were sent by automated accounts.

"One of the things Donald Trump does all the time is talk about  how popular he is on Twitter," Woolley said. "…But it's pretty easy, doing a little bit of analysis, to show that well over half of his followers are actually automated, fake profiles made to look like real people."

This isn't the first study to find Trump's social media fans a little, well, fake.

Vocativ found that fewer than 50% of Trump's 1,694,561 Facebook followers live in the US. In fact, Trump many of his followers hail from countries like India, Malaysia, and the Philippines, where Facebook fraud is rampant. A quick glance at TwitterAudit — a site that rates the credibility of Twitter followers — shows that at least 39% of Trump's followers are fabricated.

None of that surprises Woolley. For one thing, he said, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to use bots as a campaign tactic. Also, many of Trump's messages are amplified by the alt-right, many of whom have what he called "computer science chops."

"A lot of people in the alt-right are closely connected to groups on 4chan, that have traditionally done a lot of trolling and perpetuation of hate speech," he told Revelist.

So why should we care about a bunch of bots that live online?

Because they could determine the course of the election.

"We think that political bots are one of the newest and most pervasive forms of manipulating public opinion," Woolley told Revelist. "It's a new way to manipulate the statistics that get presented in the news; it's a way to trick advertisers and supporters into thinking someone is more popular than they already are; it's a way of doing multiple different very suspect things."

A large Twitter following, for example, can convince the racist or sexist organizations that endorse Trump that their opinion is supported — even if most of those supporters are robots. An army of pro-Trump robots can also flood Democratic hashtags and take over the conversation.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether they can take over an election.