Social Media – Not Just for Humans Any More

umamipajaroAs if you needed even one more reason to be wary of social media, today’s topic is about social media bots. Bots are algorithms that operate in social media networks. They are created to look like users, but are instead software that is being used to mimic an actual user.

You may think this is somewhat of a silly topic, but consider the following statistics. Over 20% of users on social media sites will accept an invitation from an unknown person, making them open to accepting bots as friends. Surveys have also shown that 30% of users can be fooled by a bot into believing it is a real person. It’s also been estimated that about 7% of tweeps are from bots (a tweep being a follower that will respond when you create a tweet).

That sounds innocuous enough, but consider how bots are being used today:

  • Bots are being used to try to influence public opinion. There have been a number of bots created to be somewhat conversant on a specific topic in order to spread a specific political agenda. So when you are having a conversation on Twitter with somebody who readily spouts lots of facts about global warming, net neutrality, the minimum wage, or almost any topic, you might be talking to a bot.
  • Bots can be used to create web fame. For example, there are tools available that would let you quickly produce tens of thousands of fake Twitter accounts to follow you, making you somebody who becomes famous and tracked by others. While that may sound innocuous, there is money to be made by gathering real followers and bots can be used to exaggerate one’s web influence. If somebody makes a living by selling books, for example, having a mountain of fake followers can make a person seem more famous than they really are.
  • Bots also might be responsible for some of the trending topic on Twitter since an army of bots can be used to discuss any keyword and make it track. That may not sound like a big deal, but stories that track on twitter are often followed up with actual news coverage. So this can be a tool to influence news coverage, and as such is a propaganda tool.
  • Now that Twitter feeds can feed into the Google search engine, it’s not hard to envision bots being used to influence a company’s standing on web page searches. This means a company might pay to get a high priority on Google but then be trumped by somebody who instead used an army of bots to make them look popular.
  • Bots are also a new way of spamming. If you get a tweet recommending that you buy something it’s most likely a bot. But unlike spam for Viagra or Nigerian banking, spam from bots is more likely to make a recommendation for a book you should buy or a movie you should see that is responding to something you’ve said on social media.
  • But bots are used for other kind of spam that is more lucrative. For example, I get probably twenty spam attempts trying to make comments on this blog every day. WordPress is pretty good at identifying such spam, but every once in a while these comments get through and I have to delete them. This spam is being undertaken in order to improve standing in the Google search engine, since being linked to credible web sites like this blog adds credence to a commercial or scam website.
  • Bots are often used to fill up newsfeeds and Twitter feeds with negative comments for somebody that the bot creator doesn’t like. So when you hear about something getting a lot of negative attention, this might be due to bot traffic.
  • Bots can be used to block somebody from being heard. As an example, during the Arab Spring movement tweets from protestors were filled by Arab governments with spam messages so that any tweet they made quickly got lost in the volume of noise.
  • Bots can be used to gather big data on specific topics. For instance, there could be a bot that follows as many people as possible to gather everything said on Twitter on a specific topic. One could picture political action groups, trade organizations, or corporations that might use bots to keep an ear out for what is being said about them or the topics that they care about. It’s not hard to make sense of huge volumes of tweets if you are using data analytics to parse them.
  • In a use that scares me, the US Air Force revealed that it was creating a program that would allow it to mass-produce bots for influencing political opinion. (I find it scarier that the military thinks that part of their mission is to influence public opinion than that they might use bots to do so).

This phenomenon lends itself to social media that is somewhat impersonal. There are certainly Facebook bots that people can pick up if they will friend people they don’t know, but bots are more likely to try to friend you on LinkedIn or follow you on Twitter since those sites promote making new contacts. I look at my own Twitter account and there are a number of followers who could very easily be bots – I have no way of knowing if these are real people or real organizations.

A number of social media sites have undertaken steps to identify and eliminate bots, but it’s an uphill battle when somebody can create a new army of bots within hours to replace ones that are taken down. The presence of bots is one more thing that should make you skeptical of things like the trending news topics on Twitter. It’s possible for one person to influence such things for their own purposes, and sadly, most people have no idea that these bots even exist.

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