Social Bots: the Secret Agents Behind the Screen

In today’s digital age, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have revolutionized how we connect with friends, engage with peers, and establish global connections. However, not every account you encounter is operated by a genuine person. Increasingly, you might find yourself interacting with a program known as a social bot. According to a research, up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts are in fact bots rather than people1. And this figure might be a conservative estimate, considering the complexity of certain bots.

Also, according to Messenger chatbot statistics, the number of chatbots increased in 2018 by 100,000 users, and there were over 300,000 chatbots on Facebook in 20182.

What is a Social Bot?

A social bot is a computer algorithm that automatically produces content and interacts with humans on social media, trying to emulate and possibly alter their behavior3.

OCIA defines them as programs that vary in size depending on their function, capability, and design; and can be used on social media platforms to do various useful and malicious tasks while simulating human behavior. These programs use artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and other programs or databases to imitate legitimate users posting content.4

Well, scholars have various definitions for social bots, but overall, as we can see, social bots are characterized by their virtuality, autonomy, sociability, personification, and dependence on social media.

Potential Opinion Makers: Social Bots in Global Politics

From a societal perspective, social bots gained widespread recognition during events like the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.

The U.S. election saw both sides accumulating a significant online presence of “supporters” who, as later revealed, were bots. According to statistics, 15% of active Twitter users discussing the 2016 U.S. presidential election were bots, with at least 400,000 bots generating 3.8 million tweets, constituting around 19% of the total volume5.

Computational propaganda is one of the most powerful new tools against democracy.

Research Paper Directed by Oxford’s Philip Howard and Samuel Woolley

In the UK’s Brexit referendum in June of the same year, social media bots played a crucial strategic role in influencing discussions, as reported by The Independent6.

Who’s behind that Twitter feed? Robot typing via

Despite the temporal gap, these events remain significant in our collective memory, shaping our perceptions of social media bots, and also through daily encounters with advertising bots, zombie accounts, and mysterious followers on our social media platforms.

Fake followers on our social media platforms

While some social media bots serve positive purposes, such as bots that automatically fetch and aggregate content from various sources. Bots on Twitter, for instance, provide daily weather updates or share concise news summaries. Furthermore, consider another instance of a bot being used positively, exemplified by the tweets from @dscovr_epic. These tweets showcase stunning images of Earth captured in space by NASA’s DSCOVR satellite, accompanied by details of the location and time the photos were taken. But still, the majority of bots typically enter the public eye with a negative image.

Tweets from@dscovr_epic

How to Identify a Social Bot?

In addition to studying social media bots and their impacts, there is a series of related research focusing on enhancing the identification of social media bot accounts at a technical level.

Social media bots often exhibit certain characteristics: they post large volumes of content daily, their profile pictures are usually patterns rather than real user photos, they have a significantly higher number of followers than those they follow, unrealistic response speeds, and repetitive content…

Initially, users could rely on these traits to distinguish between bots and real individuals. However, with advancements in technology, social media bots have become increasingly sophisticated, making them harder to identify.

Many detection efforts are typically undertaken by the platforms themselves. They have employed large-scale algorithms to detect and ban bot accounts. However, to prevent exploitation, the strategies for combating bots are usually kept confidential. However, we can also sometimes use some measures that come from external platforms, such as Botometer (formerly BotOrNot) checks the activity of a Twitter account and gives it a score. Higher scores mean more bot-like activity.

Coexistence of Humans and Bots?

As technology continues to advance and integrate further into our lives, coexisting with social media bots may become the new normal. In the conclusion of the paper The Rise of Social Bots, author Ferrara predicts,

The future of social media ecosystems might already point in the direction of environments where machine-machine interaction is the norm, and humans navigate a world populated mostly by bots.

This trend is gradually becoming apparent. To a large extent, the ability to distinguish between regular users and bots and then continue one’s journey in the internet has become an essential skill for today’s social media users.

Coexistence Between Human and Chatbots

What kinds of social media bots have you encountered on the internet? How do you feel about their presence? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

  1. Varol, O., Ferrara, E., Davis, C., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2017). Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation, and Characterization. ↩︎
  2. Milja Milenkovic. (2019, October 30). The Future is Now – 37 Fascinating Chatbot Statistics. SmallBizGenius; My Blog. ↩︎
  3. Ferrara, E., Varol, O., Davis, C., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2016). The rise of social bots. Communications of the ACM, 59(7), 96–104. ↩︎
  4. NATIONAL PROTECTION AND PROGRAMS DIRECTORATE. (n.d.). trackDocs=ncsam_socialmediabotsoverview_508.pdf ↩︎
  5. Markoff, J. (2016, November 17). Automated Pro-Trump Bots Overwhelmed Pro-Clinton Messages, Researchers Say. The New York Times. ↩︎
  6. Fake Twitter accounts helped the Leave vote win the Brexit referendum. (2017, July 27). The Independent. ↩︎