We live in a world of instant news. Every day, thousands of newspapers, news networks and news sites around the globe publish hundreds of thousands of news that range from the latest political scandal at the White House, to the smallest hyper local issue at a lost town in the middle of nowhere. While this has been true for decades now, social media has exacerbated this phenomenon, by allowing these outlets to reproduce their content further than they ever thought possible, both by having their readers share their news with friends and followers, and by becoming very active in the social space. And that’s great. But there’s one more thing the media is using social networks for in a very active manner: grasping people’s views and opinions on the issues, either in the form of aggregating Twitter and Facebook messages, by doing an overall analysis of opinion trends, and even by conducting their polls through hashtags and the like. And while this is a great way to learn more about the public opinion, it actually puts in danger the accuracy with which we perceive reality and make some of our decisions. And it’s all thanks to social bots.
Social bots, along with government spying, represent the largest threat free speech has ever encountered in the digital era. These bots, programmed by political parties, brands, digital agencies, and all kinds of organizations, are nothing else than counterfeit Facebook and Twitter accounts that are designed either to bulk up the follower base of a certain individual; to “like” or “follow” people or brands in order to create the fake impression that ad campaigns are working better than expected on advertising scams; to engage users in an attempt to sell them something; or to seed content such as opinions and comments that look genuine in order to deceive the public opinion.
Unfortunately, bots are becoming more and more frequent, and most unsuspicious human users will encounter a couple among their followers. Some brands have up to 48% of bot follower bases (and we are talking about popular brands that never invested in fake followers) and even President Obama has a solid 38% bot followers base. This has to do with the fact that bots will deliberately follow regular users who never requested “their services” in order to appear normal, and to arise as little suspicion as possible on them and their clients. Popular figures, well known brands and accounts with massive follower bases will most likely get a lot of attention from bots, as they are visible and easy to follow.
Bot Followers are a Problem
Harmless as they may seem, bot followers are a real problem. And not just because they tend to lower engagement metrics for marketers and politicians (as these kinds of bots will increase the “follow” or “like” number, but will rarely, if ever, interact), but because they overrepresent the traction and popularity a brand or a person actually has on the social networks. In a world where popularity means influence, a user with a massive amount of followers will have more chances of being taken seriously by others, including true opinion leaders and the media. We are not saying that a vanity metric like popularity on social networks actually makes a person look smarter, but when time comes to feature a tweet, or to forward it to other viewers, not only the regular folk, but also any professional journalist will choose the message posted by the user with a larger follower base, as it offers better validation.
The Dangers of Bots
Fake followers, however, are the least of the problems when it comes to bots. Social bots designed to generate opinions and messages aligned to the agenda of a certain party, can be the most damaging. As we mentioned earlier, more and more news outlets are taking opinion trends directly from Twitter. However it is legitimate to question whether these trends reflect the actual thoughts of society (or of the twittersphere for that matter). Especially on topics where big odds are at stake, like say the healthcare reform or some other hot issue, it is not unusual for millions of people to opine, but what happens when half those opinions are fake and respond to one, two or a few interest groups agenda?
Such scenario will, on one hand, increase the perception by regular tweeters that the “other side” or, other opinion trends, have a larger impact than they actually have. On the other hand, if a news outlet or political consultant is using some tool to measure how many tweets reflect a certain opinion over the other, results can turn very confusing, and very far from the truth. This is especially dangerous in electoral campaigns, or on periods of high social turmoil, where the perception of, for example, majority support for a government, can dissuade citizens to march, vote on a referendum or take any other kind of action.
Fortunately, the media is starting to realize something’s wrong, and sites and magazines as prestigious as the Huffington Post, Forbes and Fast Company have featured stories about the bot problematic. However, these and many other sites, are still taking Twitter as serious source of information. Some TV networks, radio shows and even news sites, are regularly counting the usage of certain hashtags as a simple polling method on Twitter (which, btw, will also produce some virality to their content). Unfortunately, these polls can be easily tricked by bots, altering an otherwise different result.
The solution, for now, is checking data seriously, and making sure that the batch data collection performed to produce those studies, includes filters that remove all suspicious content and all doubtful users.
Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are amazing tools for journalists and the modern news world. However, until the bot problematic becomes well known, it is imperative that we are very cautious about the way we handle information, in order to avoid creating fake perceptions or to undermine the genuine opinions of millions of people.
The Tip of the Iceberg
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In order to create real awareness about the threat to free speech that bots produce, we have decided to start writing about it. Every couple of weeks we’ll be producing new posts and all kinds of content to put this problem in perspective, and help people from around the world to open their eyes and start taking action. Our posts will be written by our collaborators at Botbusters and by guest posters from different fields who can provide a new perspective on this and other related issues. We If you feel you have something to say, feel free to contact us, and we’ll happily review and post your content.
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