TL;DR: Social media bots are made up of algorithms optimized for social media platforms. Social bots work through an account from which they can like, comment, share and follow. Both helpful and detrimental, social bots present a double-edged sword for social media marketers.
Algorithms and Coding Make the Bot
Bots are a mix of algorithms and coding created to process a task or set of functions. Bots are made to process repetitive actions autonomously and can be fairly easy to build thanks to a variety of tutorials and free coding like Venture Beat’s guide to building a Twitter bot in less than 30 minutes.
Through a social media account, a social bot can complete tasks like message generation, following, liking, commenting and sharing — actions similar to a regular user.
Social bots can help you manage your social media account by completing tasks for you, such as automatically following back accounts, liking, reposting or post scheduling. There are many popular Twitter accounts run by bots like Earthquake Robot, which tweets every time there's a 5.0 or greater earthquake registers on the Richter scale. There's also a Twitter bot that reminds you to take a breather every once in a while. For a complete list of interesting Twitter bots to follow, click here. Forbes also shared how bots were positively changing the world.
But living in the era of social media influencers where the number of followers you have can give you power and push, social bots can become entangled in some shady business. Businesses like Devumi started to pop up as influencers gained traction because suddenly, making a profit from selling followers was possible. All you needed was an account and a bot to run it.
Influencers could use social bot accounts to mislead people into believing they hold a more significant influence than they do. Aside from being dishonest, this can lead to higher costs for brands that partner with influencers. In fact, fake followers in influencer marketing are expected to cost brands $1.3 billion in 2019.
Social bots have also affected our information networks negatively. One such case is the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Researchers found that a core group of bots created the misinformation network, which retweeted the largest amounts of misinformation.
"We are seeing that bots are effective in putting stuff into people's feeds, and in amplifying messages," said Filip Menczer, a researcher studying the misinformation network in a Scientific American interview.
According to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Americans say they get their news from social media. But only 7 percent of Americans who've heard about social bots are very confident they can identify them from real people.
Bot Accounts No More
There's a reason why I've mentioned Twitter bots so much: In 2018, The New York Times published The Follower Factory, an investigative report on the business of fake followers. In addition to being one of the firsts to shed some light on this social media fraud, the report made Twitter the public face for social bot use by linking the social platform to influencer fraud and fake followers. The report also led to a rise in distrust among social media users. This distrust pushed social media platforms to be more accountable. In Twitter's case, they removed millions of accounts from user's followers in 2018, a purge that removed about four followers from the average user but higher numbers for other accounts.
Twitter has since released new processes for dealing with bots. This proactive approach with accounts that participated in spammy actions like bulk following. Facebook’s efforts saw the removal of 2.2 billion accounts in the first quarter of 2019 alone. Facebook's goal was to find and remove as many "abusive, fake accounts" as possible while still keeping the authentic accounts. To be labeled an abusive, fake account, you have to show signs of malicious activity and abusive behavior, such as sending out friend requests and messages at an unnatural speed or in a way that doesn't align with regular user activity. Instagram took a different approach by targeting "inauthentic activity." Instead of accounts, the platform is removing inauthentic activity that includes likes, comments and follows from accounts that use third-party apps.
Social Media’s Post-Bot Purge Era
Called a “pervasive form of social media fraud” by The New York Times, social bots should be on every person's radar. Most notably, we’ll continue to see vanity metrics that were easy for bots to perform continue to fluctuate as the platforms rebound.
This new age of authenticity will allow brands to reach audiences better and measure what works for their brands versus what doesn't. If you're a social media marketer, it means you'll be able to reach real people — people who can turn into paying customers rather than bots that only represent a number in the follower count.
To spot the fakes more easily, read this article on how to detect influencer fraud.