AU MA Social Media

A class blog about social media.

Is There a Human Behind Every Social Media Account? Or a Bot?

Posted by sarahkana10 on August 3, 2014

Recently, we got a note from a client that they felt that people who were Tweeting at them were all being paid or part of some larger scheme. In order to prove or disprove this, a coworker and I went through HUNDREDS of social media accounts to see what these people were Tweeting, when they were Tweeting, deciphering themes, etc. We recorded all of this in a spreadsheet. It was amazing to see the relation between all of these accounts- Tweeting about totally random and unrelated things on the exact same day as each other. On June 27, 2014 almost all of the accounts we were looking at, Tweeted out a 16 digit number, all beginning the same, basically look like this: 4087618273923489.

Clearly, that was not a coincidence and we began to really wonder if these people, from all parts of the world we part of a scheme or a paid media campaign. It turns out, that their accounts were actually ROBOTS… 

Yep. I’m not sure who at Edelman figured this out or how they did, but that’s what we were told was the case. I was secretly hoping it was something more juicy or interesting than that. As interns, we weren’t given much more information. I had never really heard about robot social media accounts, so I looked it up. 

I found an article on Mashable entitled: “This Algorithm Tells You If A Twitter Account Is a Spam Bot”.  

Essentially, the article explains that there are actually hundreds of thousands of bots out there, sometimes accounts are set up just by bots (who does this, the article does not say) and sometimes bots take over human accounts, other times humans “lend” their accounts to bots. Usually, bots post far more often than humans, they search for the most popular are trending things on Twitter, and then they RT. Given that Twitter only allows posts to be 140 characters, its much easier for bots to actually trick humans- its not that hard to come up with a short post, whereas a bot blogger would be harder to pull off.  

“Back in 2011, a team from Texas A&M University carried out a cyber sting to trap nonhuman Twitter users that were polluting the Twittersphere with spam. Their approach was to set up “honeypot” accounts which posted nonsensical content that no human user would ever be interested in. Any account that retweeted this content, or friended the owner, must surely be a nonhuman user known as a social bot.  The team set up 60 honeypots and harvested some 36,000 potential social bot accounts. The result surprised many observers because of the sheer number of nonhuman accounts that were active. These bots were generally unsophisticated and simply retweeted more or less any content they came across.”

Since then, social bots have become significantly more advanced. They search social networks for popular and influential people, follow them and capture their attention by sending them messages. These bots can identify keywords and find content accordingly and some can even answer inquiries using natural language algorithms.

In the case that I was working on, robots or “social bots” can really make a big difference in how much statements or information is being spread; so its really something to be careful of- especially if it is negative information. The article didn’t mention anything about reporting suspected bots, but I’m sure you could try to report them to Twitter.

For those interested, there is a Bot or Not? algorithm available at this website. Simply enter the screen name of the Twitter user and it will analyze its features and most recent posts to determine the likelihood of it being a social bot.


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