Most website visitors aren’t human. They’re bots. Today, bots make up 52% of all web traffic. And these automated accounts have had serious, real world impact — from the 2016 election, to the FCC’s recent, controversial net neutrality vote.
In this week’s episode of IRL podcast, we explore the rise of political bot networks and how they’re warping and rewiring conversation online.
Of course, not all bots are bad. Automated accounts can remind us to take better care of ourselves.
: please dont forget to take a bit of time to eat something nutritious
— here’s your reminder (@tinycarebot) January 4, 2018
They can make us laugh.
— Emoji Aquarium (@EmojiAquarium) January 5, 2018
And they can force us to ask hard questions about the culture we’re creating.
Well, Fascism Is Normal Now, Let’s Talk About Moon Lawyers Instead
— Thinkpiece Bot (@thinkpiecebot) December 26, 2017
But when bots are used as a tool to amplify political messaging, it gets weird and dangerous. More so, because most of us assume that we’d be able to tell the difference between a bot and a human on social media. Sometimes, it’s not so obvious. : /
1. Bots post. A lot.
If you suspect an account might be a bot, the first and easiest thing you can do is check their Twitter activity. Go the the account’s profile page, and see how many tweets they’ve posted since their account was created. A human Twitter user might post 10-15 times a day. A bot account will post with high frequency, up to 2,000 times a day. That’s more than a tweet a minute, every minute, for 24 hours. Not even the worst human is capable of this.
2. Bots love anonymity.
Once you’re on the profile page, look at the account details. Is the handle a real human name, or does it just have a scramble of letters and numbers? Is the profile picture an image of a person, or is it a generic landscape? Is it an egg? In general, the less personal information the profile gives, the more likely the account is a bot.
3. Bots live to amplify.
One of the main roles of bots is to boost up the message of other bots. A typical bot will retweet and quote links, instead of creating original posts. Scan your suspected bot’s account. If it’s an endless stream of retweets, it’s behaving like a bot.
No single factor can reliably identify a bot. According to Nimmo, it’s the combination of these three indicators that’s most revealing. The most important thing is awareness. If you can identify a bot, you’re less likely to be influenced by it (or awkwardly retweet it). For more on how to spot bots out in the wild, check out DFR Lab’s handbook, here.