An internet bot is a software app that runs automated tasks over the internet. These tasks are usually simple and repetitive, performing at a much higher rate than a human. Social media bots, however, are used for tasks such as generating messages, acting as a follower, liking posts and commenting on posts. It is estimated that 9-15% of Twitter accounts may be social bots, so someone must be paying for them- but who? Social media bots are known to help influence public opinion, creating believable online personas to help push certain ideas, or feign support for these ideas.
Just one example of a website where you can buy a social media bot is monstersocial.net. Bots can “pretend to be a human on a normal web browser so it can’t get blocked”. Prices are typically about $14.99 per month, and the customer can “automate unlimited accounts” across multiple social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The popularity of these sites is high, but many assume that the people buying followers are wannabe social media influencers. However, in reality, political campaigns have been accused of using bots, with recent calls by commenters that bots are acting on Boris Johnson’s Facebook page.
Luca Maria Aiello from the University of Turin helped to prove the influence of social media bots. In September 2009 he conducted a study on aNobii.com, a site where users can recommend books to each other. He made up a user called lajello who visited different users’ profiles daily, leaving a trace, and people began to respond. Aiello noticed that when lajello began its round of visits, it triggered a burst of comments on its public wall. By December 2011, lajello’s profile had become one of the most popular on the entire social network. Aiello said of the experiment “it gives strong support to the thesis that popularity can be gained with continuous social probing”.
Aside from using social media bots for gaining support politically, or gaining user specific popularity, they must be acknowledged as incredible tools for marketing. Bots can help to build stronger relationships with customers, just by delivering targeted content and anticipating user reactions. Furthermore, in the social media age, an inflated follower count can do wonders for a new business, as it makes the customer see it as a more legitimate brand whilst also encouraging them to want what others “have”.
Lutz Finger, a Forbes journalist, explained how social media bots can help to create mischief within the business community, specifically within the finances of our competitors. To demonstrate this he asked the reader to consider what would have happened it 10,000,000,000 bots would have shown their identity shortly before the Facebook IPO and what this may have caused. “Just sign up your worst opponent with fake identities and help the world discover it”.
The social media bot business, however, has now gone beyond the scope of marketers looking for fame and sales success. Bots are now big government’s business, with the US Air Force revealing that it solicited Ntrepid, a California based company, to create software that would enable it to mass-produce bots for political purposes. The $2.76 million contract was for “online persona management” whereby the company would make a new technology allowing blogging activities on websites outside of the US, to “counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda”. The US central command revealed that this technology would allow for one operator to anonymously create and control ten personas from one computer.
It is clear that whilst social media bots were originally created for people and businesses to feign influence and gain popularity; they have now entered the political sphere. With more and more tools being used on social media, as demonstrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, political campaigns may continue to support the business of social media bots. Purchasing fake support in order to influence others has never been easier, but will there be a backlash from social media platforms fearful of their impact?
There has already been a backlash from California lawmakers. As of October 2018, California passed the Bolstering Online Transparency Act (BOT Act), prohibiting online bots from hiding their identities to appear as human. According to these lawmakers, the human-like persona is used to deceive California residents about matters involving sales and political elections. Therefore, as long as the bot clearly discloses its identity, the user cannot be said to be misleading the other user, and therefore is not in violation of the BOT Act. Those that do act in violation could face fines of up to $2,500 for each transgression under the California Unfair Competition Act. With other states and countries set to follow, questions remain about the future of the social media bot.