WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Bots on major social media platforms have been hyping up GameStop Corp and other “meme” stocks, according to an analysis by Massachusetts-based cyber security company PiiQ Media, suggesting organized economic or foreign actors may have played a role in the Reddit-driven trading frenzy.
Shares of GameStop soared last month after Reddit users banded together to squeeze hedge funds that had bet against the video game retailer and other companies. Reddit Chief Executive Steve Huffman told Congress this month that bots, artificial or fake accounts with automated content, had not played a “significant role” in GameStop Reddit message traffic.
PiiQ Media’s analysis of Twitter Inc, Facebook Inc, Instagram and YouTube posts, however, found that bots used the platforms to push GameStop and other “meme” stocks, although it is unclear how influential they were in the overall saga.
A startup that focuses on social media risks, PiiQ said it examined patterns of keywords such as “Hold the Line” and GameStop’s stock symbol, “GME,” across conversations and profiles prior to the Jan. 28 frenzy, through Feb. 18. For comparison, it also assessed posts on an unrelated set of stocks.
PiiQ said it identified very similar daily “start and stop patterns” in the GameStop-related posts, with activity starting at the beginning of the trading day, followed by a large spike at the end of the trading day. Such patterns are indicative of bots, said Aaron Barr, co-founder and chief technology officer of PiiQ.
“We saw clear patterns of artificial behavior across the other four social media platforms. When you think of organic content, it’s variable in the day, variable day-to-day. It doesn’t have the exact same pattern every day for a month,” he said.
Based on its authenticity scoring system, PiiQ estimates there are tens of thousands of bot accounts hyping GameStop, the meme stocks, and Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency swept up in the frenzy. Thousands of fake accounts can be purchased for as little as $200, it said.
The company did not analyze Reddit data, but Barr said he would expect to see a similar pattern of activity on Reddit, indicating bot-like or coordinated management of conversations.
A representative for Reddit did not comment beyond Huffman’s testimony. Representatives for YouTube, Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary did not respond to requests for comment. The social media platforms generally try to weed out harmful bots, said Barr.
A representative of Twitter said “bots” had become a catch-all term that can often mischaracterize the nature of the account. The company notes bots can be used on its platform for creative or innovative purposes.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is probing the GameStop saga and on Friday suspended trading in 15 companies due to unusual trading activity and apparent attempts on social media to artificially inflate their stock prices. That is in addition to six stocks it recently suspended due to suspicious social media activity.
“We proactively monitor for suspicious trading activity tied to stock promotions on social media, and act quickly to stop that trading,” the SEC’s acting enforcement director, Melissa Hodgman, said in a statement on Friday.
In addition to traders, organized criminals may use social media to stoke asset prices, and undermining the integrity of U.S. markets is a known goal of hostile state actors, said Barr. But it is unclear how successful, if at all, these types of influence efforts are, he said.
“Measuring the effect of those campaigns is often illusive.”
(Reporting by Michelle Price in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler and Matthew Lewis)