Bots are a mix of algorithms and coding created to process a task or set of functions. They’re made to process repetitive actions autonomously and can be fairly easy to build, thanks to a variety of tutorials and free coding like Venture Beat’s guide to building a Twitter bot in less than 30 minutes.
Through a social media account, a bot can complete tasks that regular users are expected to do on platforms, including message generation, following, liking, commenting and sharing, but at a much faster rate/higher quantity.
The Double-Edged Sword of Bots
There are many popular Twitter accounts run by bots, and in fact, Forbes has previously reported how bots were positively changing the world. Some progressive examples of bots include Earthquake Robot, which tweets every time a 5.0 or greater earthquake registers on the Richter scale, or this Twitter bot which reminds followers to take a breather every once in a while.
However, living in the era of social media influencers, where the number of followers they have has the potential to give these users strong power and push, social bots can become entangled in some shady business. Influencer manager-type companies even started to pop up as influencers gained traction, because suddenly, making a profit from selling followers was possible. All an aspiring influencer needed was an account and a bot to run it.
Influencers are able to use social bot accounts to mislead people into believing they hold a more significant influence than they actually do. Aside from being dishonest, this has led to higher costs for brands that partner with influencers. In fact, fake followers in influencer marketing are expected to cost brands $1.3 billion in 2019.
Social bots have also impacted our information networks negatively. One such case was the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where researchers found a core group of bots created a network of misinformation, which retweeted a large amount of inaccurate information leading up to election night.
“We are seeing that bots are effective in putting stuff into people’s feeds, and in amplifying messages,” said Filip Menczer, a researcher studying the misinformation network in a Scientific American interview.
According to the Pew Research Center, 66% of Americans say they receive their news from social media. Only 7% of Americans who’ve heard about social bots are very confident they can identify them from real people.
Bot Accounts No More
While bots have appeared within the social space on all platforms, there’s a reason why Twitter is the most concerning: In 2018, The New York Times published “The Follower Factory,” an investigative report on the business of fake followers. In addition to being one of the firsts to shed light on social media fraud, the report made Twitter the public face for social bot use by linking the platform to influencer fraud and fake followers. The report also led to a rise in distrust among social media users, which began the push by social media platforms to be more accountable. In Twitter’s case, the company removed millions of accounts – about four followers from the average user, but significantly higher numbers for more popular accounts.
Twitter has since released new processes for dealing with bots. This proactive approach went after accounts that participated in spammy actions like bulk following. Facebook’s efforts saw the removal of 2.2 billion accounts in the first quarter of 2019, alone. Facebook’s goal was to find and remove as many “abusive, fake accounts” as possible, while still keeping authentic, active accounts. To be labeled an abusive, fake account, they’d have to show signs of malicious activity and abusive behavior, such as sending out friend requests and messages at an unnatural speed or in a way that doesn’t align with regular user activity. Instagram took a different approach by targeting “inauthentic activity.” Instead of accounts, the platform is removing inauthentic activity that includes likes, comments and follows from accounts that use third-party apps.
Social Media’s Post-Bot Purge Era
Called a “pervasive form of social media fraud” by The New York Times, social bots should be on every person’s radar. Most notably, we’ll continue to see vanity metrics – likes, views and comments – that were easy for bots to perform, continue to fluctuate as the platforms rebound.
This new age of authenticity will allow brands to reach audiences better and measure what works for their marketing efforts versus what doesn’t. If you’re a social media marketer, it means you’ll be able to reach real people — people who can turn into paying customers rather than bots that only represent a number in the follower count.