Social media has changed a lot in the past few decades. One of the largest sources of this change is bots. For better or worse, they are a frequently used tool for many internet visitors, but for others, the inner workings of bots are still a mystery.
If you find yourself somewhere in the middle and want to test your knowledge, then keep reading. We will cover some of the most important aspects of social media bots.
What are social media bots?
Bots are computer programs designed to operate in a network, such as the internet, and automate tasks. Typically, the actions they can perform are quite simple and repetitive. Bots can visit (or crawl) the web, download files, collect information and accomplish other useful tasks.
Often bots are programmed to mimic human behavior while carrying out their tasks. So it is hard to distinguish a bot from a human user. The task is challenging not only for the defenses of websites but also for humans that interact with bots on social media.
This is where s bots are easiest to distinguish from others. They are made to perform actions and even engage with users on social media, but they often look repetitive.
Besides more common tasks of a bot, social media bots can share and like content, follow users and sometimes even write conversational messages. Some bots are specifically designed to produce content on social platforms and are called ‘social bots’.
Social bots are not chatbots
To know what is a social bot, we have to debunk a few misconceptions. The terms ‘social bot’ and ‘social media bot’ can be used interchangeably, but ‘spam bot’ is more appropriate for cases where bots are used maliciously. For example, repeatedly posting the same information or spreading misinformation.
Chatbots are yet another bot type, made to automate human conversations via text or voice. They can recognize human expressions and follow paths of dialogue due to artificial intelligence or with the help of human-created rules.
Social media bots can have some messaging functionality built-in, and chatbots often can perform actions on social media. For this reason, they are commonly confused, but it is a misconception. Social bots act with other users on a social media platform, while chatbots serve as an interface for various services to help their customers.
Two types of social media bots
Marketers use social bots for social media automation. They enable marketers to manage multiple social media accounts with ease. They save time and optimize the processes while humans only need to provide instructions. Here are a few notable use cases:
- Automating tasks. Bots can do many tasks, so you wouldn’t need to. They can schedule posts, monitor trends, automatically comment, follow, like, etc.
- Managing multiple accounts. Bots allow connecting all the accounts in one dashboard and perform actions in bulk (e.g. posting) with a click of a button.
- Collect data. Bots can crawl social media feeds, user profiles and other pages of platforms to collect freely accessible data. You would be surprised how much valuable knowledge there is in social media.
These harmless tasks are only the tip of the iceberg, as social bots are frequently used with bad intentions too. Creators of such bots aim to disrupt the workings of social media by misleading its users. Here is a common example:
- Influencing political discussions. By the sheer number of messages, social bots can impact political views and swing elections. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that they already have done so.
Social media bots are very widespread
A few years ago, Facebook announced it closed more than 5 billion fake accounts. That is a number bigger than half the world’s population, and most of these accounts are run by social media bots. Highly likely that millions of these bots are still functioning on the platform.
But Facebook is no exception, and other social media platforms house a lot of bots as well. It’s been proven that Twitter, for example, has between 9 and 15 percent of active accounts run by bots. Some tools even help detect whether an account is a bot or not.
Challenges of using bots
The lesson we should take out of these numbers is that bots are here to stay, and they are getting better. Therefore, social media sites are increasingly restricting the usage of automation. The problem is they do not differentiate between good or bad intentions, so the same challenges apply to everyone.
IP addresses. Social media sites track every visitor’s IP address and monitor their behavior. The IP might be banned if there is more than one account associated with it or if there is suspicious activity. This is the biggest challenge when using bots.
Profile information. All social media sites require users to provide genuine information about themselves. So automated accounts have to use different names, emails, photos, and all the rest contact information
Account interactions. If your account is under suspicion of being automated, your whole network of friends will be checked. Bot accounts have to be careful to not interact only with other bots.
Creation time. First iterations of bot accounts were easily detectable by their date of creation. Now it is advised to ‘groom’ these accounts for quite some time. So go ahead and create some original posts and expand your network before putting them to use.
Social media bots are an important part of our online interactions. While it is certainly not all there is to know about social media bots, the points made here are a good starting point to build your understanding. The next step should be to try and use a bot for yourself.