Social media has become an increasingly important phenomenon both as a way to influence public opinion in all sorts of ways — from citizens speaking out about political issues, to brands promoting new products, and everything in between — and a as a way to understand what the public opinion is saying about all kinds of topics. This amazing possibility was never before possible, not at least to the extent to which social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have taken us today.
The Arab Spring, the massive protests in Latin America in 2013 and, lately, the Ukrainian revolution have all been sparked by social media. Community leaders, politicians and regular Joes alike have used these channels to express their views and to call others to join their cause. This has allowed traditional media to extract information and learn what people thought.
Unfortunately, these vital tools for social change have been tainted. Stained by fake accounts known as “bots”.
Set up by all kinds of organizations, from governments, political parties and activists to even brands and marketing agencies these bots are no less than fake accounts that tweet and post messages as if they were real people, confusing others by creating or vastly enlarging marginal opinion trends, making it seem as is a particular message is having a wider acceptance than it actually does. This not only confuses actual people, but by increasing the critical mass a certain view has on the social networks, they also distorts the views traditional media gets by examining the social networks in search for insights on what “the people” are saying.
Other bots are created to increase the amount of followers a certain user has. Some popular accounts belonging to movie stars and political leaders have amassed a follower base of millions of people, but also of millions of bots that make those people seem far more popular than they truly are.
Finally there’s another kind of bots, which are no more than spam machines. Designed to engage users who mention certain keywords, and sell them stuff. These are arguably less harmful than political bots, as they purpose is purely commercial. But still, they are in a great deal responsible for polluting our social experience online.
It’s also worth mentioning the existence of community managers, people who manage corporate and VIP accounts on their behalf. While these generally are ethical professionals, in some cases they are responsible of creating counterfeit accounts fed with made up messages and information, with the sole purpose of creating or amplifying a certain opinion trend. Even though they are handled by humans, in practical terms such accounts are as pernicious as bots.
We are a group of engineers, sociologists, economists, attorneys and marketers from all around the world who share a big concern over the bot issue. We are determined to bring this issue to the public spotlight, by making people aware of the threat these seemingly harmless accounts represent not just to social media but to free speech on the Internet. Because, how can make ourselves heard, when thousands of fake voices are shouting louder to cover our cry?
As activists for free speech, we are committed to develop all kinds of tools and strategies to expose bots and the people behind them, and to allow concerned users to detect and denounce bots in the easier way possible.
The Botbusters Project is our first answer to this problem. In this site, you will find information about this ever growing problem, as well as a tool to verify if individual Twitter accounts are actual people, accounts handled by community managers or bots programmed to pursue someone’s agenda.
Doing so is not simple, and it involves an evolutionary algorithm that is permanently learning and improving itself in order to verify each account’s activity, its interactions, the topics it addresses the tone it uses, and the frequency and times at which it tweets, in order to determine if it’s a real human or a fake. Bots are becoming harder and harder to detect, as the technology behind them is frankly improving on a daily basis, but so is ours.
The fight for our right to a bot-free social Internet is barely beginning, and we will make every possible effort to bring more people on board our cause, in order to spread the word and combat this spiteful trend that’s killing our freedom to speak and be heard.
Learn more about The Botbusters at: http://thebotbusters.org