Whats is a Bot?
You’ve definitely already heard of social “Bots”. Most probably in a negative context like they are influencing discussion on social, spreading political propaganda, even under suspicion of influencing the outcome of elections.
Should we be afraid of them? How does a bot work anyway? And how do I know if a social media profile is really a bot? Let’s have a look.
What is a bot?
In the physical world, a “Bot” is the larvae of the bot fly. It’s a parasite that lives inside an animal’s stomachs and comes out when everything else comes out. But in the digital world, it is not some kind of robot as the name might suggest. It is a script or a software program that’s designed to do repetitive automated tasks.
These programs are basically used in all areas online.
Typically, their tasks are simple and repetitive. Bots can perform them at a much higher rate than a human being. Primarily they use for the “Web crawling“. Automated script retrieval, analysis, and file information from web servers.
It has estimated that more than half of all web traffic is made up of bots. On social media, they can be programmed to scan the platform for certain keywords and act according to a certain purpose. They can automatically share content from other profiles or reply to posts.
Examples of good purpose bots
Let’s suppose I love cheesecake so much that I’d want to send a message to all Twitter users who post about cheesecake. To do that, I could manually search the topic while 200 tweets in the last hour. It would take me some time to answer every single one of them. But I could also set up a Twitter account and write a program that lets the account act autonomously.
It will search Twitter for cheesecake postings and automatically post my reply. To some extent, I could even teach the bot to analyze if a posting is positive or negative and let him post a suitable answer.
Furthermore, digital assistants like Alexa and Siri are also bots.
Can bots be dangerous?
Yes. Back to the negative image of bots. If I program my bot to search for climate change and my agenda was to deny climate change. That really does have a rather negative impact. Service bots can deliver news updates or help you to quit smoking by sending motivational messages from time to time, and they can also be used for a good cause.
Here’s one example I like a lot. In 2015, two American journalists created the account, “Drop the iBOT”. Whenever a tweet contained the words illegal immigrant it automatically commented, “people aren’t illegal”. Try saying undocumented immigrants or unauthorized immigrants instead. Unfortunately, the account was removed from the platform. Still a great idea.
But they are indeed used for political purposes as well. They can influence the discussion about military conflicts or elections, for example. They can even set trends.
Although most of the time their contributions to discussions are not very profound. Especially on Twitter, bots are a widespread phenomenon. According to recent findings, about 15 percent of all Twitter traffic is created by them. And that can be a problem. By liking and retweeting each other’s postings, they can make up topics, and opinions appear more important. While it’s at least debatable whether they can really influence elections, they can definitely help a topic become a trending topic.
How do you recognize bots?
Here are five tips on how you can identify them first.
- Usually, there’s very little personal information shown in the profile. The user names are often strange.
- Often the profile picture doesn’t show a person, but sometimes spots also steal personal photos from real users. You can then use an image search to find out more. Simply upload the photo to a search engine.
- Maybe there are more accounts with the same picture. Also, for a bot’s friends are often bots themselves.
- They are far more active than a human would be. They often tweet hundreds of tweets every day. If an account is more than 50 postings a day, you should be skeptical. Because a real person has to eat and sleep. He or she cannot post all the time.
- What kind of content is posted on the account? Topics and language always similar or the same. Does the account mostly share from the same media without adding their own comments? This is typical for bots. Have you made experiences with social media bots? Let us know in the comments.
Also, there are more dark sides of bots like getting some of these malicious bots. They also called Trojans, to some extent. You can get a Trojan by clicking on a malicious link or you have a bad ad server that’s delivering malware, you might have a spam e-mail that comes into your system and your computer gets infected. After infecting thousands of computers they create a network of bots. And that network is called botnets. I hope to discuss more in detail about botnets in future articles.
So let’s see in another article.
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