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Galway Independent


Social bots

Wednesday, 10th May, 2017 1:00am

Ever heard of a bot or indeed a social bot? A bot is a computer application that performs an automated task, such as Siri. A social bot is a software programme that controls a social media account. It operates by generating content and establishing interactions with users while convincing other users that it is a real person. In a business setting, brands have been experimenting with social bots to improve their customer processes.

Researchers from the University of Southern California and Indiana University found out that between 9% - 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots. Twitter is where social bots are most common due to the nature of short messages, re-tweeting and following users - essentially it’s not too difficult for a social bot to appear human.

There are downsides to social bots, for example, they can be abused and used to spread unverified information or rumours. Social bots can be used to manipulate social media, for example, they might artificially inflate support for a political candidate i.e. they could support one candidate and smear another by inserting thousands of tweets pointing to websites with fake news.

Regardless of accuracy, social bots give the impression that a piece of information is true by ensuring that the information is endorsed by many online, this is because social bots are mistaken for a genuine person. Applying social bots in this way can distort the social media airwaves and change the narrative of public opinion.

So, how do we recognise a social bot? Social network sites would advise some steps:

- Check that the account has a profile picture, realistic personal details and background information.

- If they have an unusually large number of friends and followers, most likely it’s a bot.

- Shared messages and shared content from the same sources.

- An overactive user posting more than 50 tweets a day.

- Exceptionally high number of likes.

- Ask the suspected social bot in-depth questions out of context – social bots struggle to provide a coherent answer to these questions.

Business is using social bots to encourage customers to buy their products, politicians engage social bots to distribute their message. With this in mind and the prevalence of use of social media, we need to be careful, vigilant and question the authenticity of the information we are presented with.

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