What exactly is a social bot? This term became quite frequent especially in relation to the debates on the Internet about Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The social media bots are a kind of chatbot that is used in social networks to influence the debates of social networks, so in the federal elections in Germany in 2017 many feared its massive impact. But is his influence really that significant? What is hidden behind a social bot and how does it work?
The bots of social networks pass themselves off as human users and, if they do not indicate that they are machines, they are classified as false accounts. Other users believe that they are human based on their profile data. This type of bots is often used to disseminate opinions on social networks or encourage debate among its users.
Companies use social media bots for commercial purposes, for example, to simulate that their products have greater popularity and also to write positive evaluations about them, but they are also used for political purposes, in such a way that they influence public discussion by positioning themselves for a determined party or politician. To discredit the opponent, the social media bots use some misinformation , so it is not surprising that this technology is usually associated with terms such as “fake news” (false news), “hate speech” (hate speech), “filter bubble” “, That is, bubble filters or” feedback loops “.
The polarizing effect of bots in social networks keeps journalists and media companies busy, but also humanists and sociologists. Due to the increasing importance of these platforms, an own industry has been developed that makes money with the development and use of social media bots and, since the use of these programs is legal, the approach of this technique in the network supposes a business lucrative.
However, this technology should not be condemned hastily, because after all it can be used wisely without falling into disinformation or manipulating opinions, that is, for example as a chat program that responds to customer inquiries.
To understand what the dangers of social media bots are and how they can be identified, it is necessary to know how their technology works. Below we explain what a bot is and what types exist.
What is a bot?
A bot (abbreviation in English of “robot”) is an automated system that is programmed to perform certain actions and execute them periodically or reactive without the need for a human to control it. Thus, it analyzes its environment and “decides”, autonomously and depending on the situation, what actions it has to execute.
What is a social bot and how is it different from other bots?
A social bot is an automatic program that simulates human behavior in social networks. Social media bots participate in debates on Twitter or Facebook and give the impression of being human users. In social networks, they disseminate content on specific topics, usually with the aim of influencing the formation of public opinion.
In general, bots of social networks are used in the marketing sector or for political purposes, although it is not unusual for them to also spread false news. Because in this way they influence public opinion and Internet debates, they are also known as opinion robots. To direct public opinion, social network bots use techniques typical of these programs that also use other types of bots: they look for debates on a specific topic in social networks (evaluation of information as in the case of web crawlers) and they participate in them as virtual members (simulation of conversations like in a chatbot).
The role of social media bots is very similar to that of chatbots or digital assistants and they contribute to communication with humans. However, there is an essential difference: while the chatbots offer an assistance service that the interlocutor uses, the social bots deceive and manipulate the (human) interlocutors. On the other hand, while chatbots can fulfill their function if they are used as technical programs, in the case of social media bots, the deception of other participants is a basic requirement to be able to influence public opinion.
Functions of social media bots:
Generally, a social bot publishes under a false account that has a profile picture, posts and sometimes even its own followers or “friends”. Through this account, the social bot spreads its marketing messages or political statements, which can be achieved in the form of likes and retweets or posts and comments. Through a programming interface (API), the social bot obtains access to social networks and can receive and send data.
Social bots act normally during the hours in which social network users are most active, but also publish their comments in different time intervals, which conceals the machine that is hidden behind.
A social bot is also able to send friend requests. If a human user accepts it, other social bots may collect and analyze these data. Social bots collect information and analyze the account data of people who accept their requests for friendship.
The different types of social bot:
The basic functions of a social bot are always the same, but you can differentiate three different types depending on their function: the overload bots, the trending bots, and the auto-troll bots.
Overload Bots: an overload bot is one that floods online conversations with your comments. He often posts the same messages over and over again and relegates other publications to the background. These bots are efficient when working with other bots. If you click on “Like” and post comments on a network reciprocally, users quickly lose control over the discussions. In this way, it is impossible to exchange content.
Trending bots: trending bots also work better as a team. If a large number of social media bots apprehend a specific hashtag in a coordinated manner, they can grant a wide scope of comments on that topic. If this extends successfully to the Facebook or Twitter trends column, the topic may even reach the press. This is when social bots can distort the true importance of the chosen subject area. The trending bots are concerned that marginal phenomena seem innovative trends or that a small marginal group resembles a social movement.
Bots auto troll: these bots act alone and their objective is to try to distract users who have expressed their opinion on a certain topic and involve them in a conversation. This is usually carried out with suggestive testimonies to provoke its replication, which causes the attention to be diverted from the real topic so that a constructive conversation can turn into a controversial and violent dialogue. With this method, bots can easily avoid the exchange of content.