Researchers at the University of Georgia have discovered that “bots” (robots) on Twitter have more influence than you may think. According to the research, bots could be the main force spreading information in many social movements. This distribution of information may lead to journalists and governments to pay attention to the movement.
“When a topic trends on Twitter, chances are a lot of central or very well-connected accounts are tweeting about it and perhaps shaping how others react. We found that some of these central accounts are actually bots,” said Terry College of Business Ph.D. student Carolina Salge, who co-authored the research with Elena Karahanna, Professor of Management Information Systems at Terry. “Once enough accounts are tweeting about the same thing, that creates buzz, and organizations really respond to buzz.”
Bots are computer programs used to carry out automated tasks, from a company sending out a tweet, to social movement leaders using them to spread support for their movement. Bots are non-human actors which aim to go undetected by human users.
The existence of bots has been known for years, but their influence hasn’t been completely understood until recently. This new study is the first time that the bot’s social influence has been studied in the information systems and management. The increase in bot’s prevalence and sophistication may be having an effect on social media and news reports.
Bots are often central to a social movement gaining support and causing governmental change. To start their research, Salge and Karahanna studied “fembots” that are used by the extramarital site Ashley Madison. This site uses bots as fake female profiles that send simple messages to men in order to get them to purchase memberships.
Even though this isn’t a positive use of bots, the use of bots is not always negative according to Salge.
“Most of the research on bots focuses on detection because there is a clear assumption that they’re often bad,” she said. “But we started to see that bots can also be used for good, like protesting corruption. We know from prior research that boycotts and protests that attract mainstream media attention are in a better position to get their demands met. It appears that a lot of movements are using bots to increase awareness of their cause on social media with the hopes to be reported by the mainstream media. And if that is indeed the case, it is definitely one way to put pressure on organizations or governments to do something.”
Another situation that researchers studied was the use of bots in the online protest of the 2013 Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court ruling which was viewed as too lenient on politicians by Brazilian citizens. When the verdict was released, Brazilians went to Twitter to protest the ruling. Social movement leaders used bots to retweet anything with relevant hashtags and news stories. The goal was to make the movement a trending topic and push for government reform.
Employees can use bots the same way that social protestors use them and add volume to their company. An example of this would be Uber employee’s dispute with their company.
“Uber had disputes with its contractors — they don’t call them employees — about their compensation and benefits,” said Karahanna. “One could easily think that these contractors could create bots to make their demands more salient and more visible to the general public and thus pressure Uber to respond positively to their demands.”
Bots can be used for many things good and bad. They could be used to spread fake news stories, causing widespread panic or misinformation. But they can also be used for good, spreading facts and support for a social movement. They are currently in an ethical gray area, and more research into bots would help spread information about their use.
Read the research article here.