Bots. They’re everywhere. Some bots admit they’re one in their username and/or bio. Some pretend to be real people. Like real people, some are good and some are bad.
Bots Quick Facts
- Bots are social media accounts programmed to perform simple tasks repeatedly (e.g., like, share, or comment on posts).
- Bots account for 66% of all links shared on Twitter.
- Bots can be used in a variety of ways.
- Humor (@johnmulaneybot, my current favorite bot, simulates John Mulaney stand-up jokes).
- Image editing (@lowpolybot takes images that were tweeted to it and replies with low-polygon versions).
- Spread propaganda and fake news (these are the bots Twitter is cracking down on, therefore no examples).
- Advertising (sold to the highest bidder).
People who use bots for good (humor, activism, etc.) usually indicate that they’re bots in their bio text and adhere to the following rules to avoid upsetting real humans, and avoid being banned by Twitter. These bots don’t:
- @ mention people who haven't opted in.
- Follow Twitter users who haven't opted in.
- Use a pre-existing hashtag.
- Go over rate limits for the daily limit of tweets/retweets from an account.
Bots that exist for propaganda, fake news, and advertising don't follow these rules and try to emulate real people. Social networks are cracking down on “bad” bots (propaganda, fake news, and advertising). However, new bot accounts crop up every day. Just because Twitter is cracking down doesn’t mean you still won’t run into bad bots online—so how can you be on the lookout for online content generated by bots?
We’ve talked about how bots function and why they exist. Awesome, but what can you do with that information? Here’s how to identify bots in online conversation.
If a bot admits they’re a bot in their profile, congratulations! Your investigation is complete. But if the account is trying to be tricky, here are a few identification tips.
Account Information Red Flags:
- No profile picture. Extra credit: If there’s a picture, do a quick Google image search (a la Catfish) to see where else the picture appears online. Oftentimes multiple bot accounts use the same profile picture.
- Neither screenname nor Twitter handle imply a human's name.
- The Twitter handle looks like a computer-generated alphanumeric scramble.
- Bio information is not specific to an individual person.
- Many of the account followers don’t have profile pictures.
Activity Red Flags:
- More than 50-60 tweets per day is suspicious, and more than 144 tweets per day is highly suspicious.
- A lot of retweets and/or tweets with word-for-word quotes of article headlines with few original posts.
- Tweets in multiple languages from one account.
- A high proportion of tweets are advertising.
- When they reply to other accounts, they use odd phrasing that seems like a program that mimics human speech. Replies might not often result in real conversations.
- The account has few followers (e.g., 76), but their posts get tons of likes/retweets (g., 23,000 interactions with one tweet).
- Number of likes and retweets on a single post are very similar (e.g., liked 100 times, retweeted 105 times).
- Botcheck.me—gauges whether or not an account may be a political/propaganda bot.
- Fake Follower Check—gauges how many followers of a particular account might be bots/fake followers.
- Twitter Audit—gauges likely fake followers, and whether an account is real or fake.
- Botometer—gauges likelihood of a bot account, from Indiana University.
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