Sorry, but social media bots are here to stay

Automated time questionably spent.
Image: Daniel Sambraus/Getty Images

Bots, bots, everywhere, but nothing good to click. 

As the social media networks of the world engage in a performative struggle to become good for people’s well being, they have been simultaneously peppered with questions about bots on their respective platforms. The automated accounts degrade the user experience and poison the well, the argument goes, and calls to cull them from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have only grown since the 2016 U.S. presidential election

The bots, however, are very much here to stay. 

Fun with Twitter bots

A look at Twitter makes this clear. Sure, the company is suspected of engaging in a recent purge of bot accounts that followed influencers, but as a whole it is actually pro bot. That’s right, the same social media giant that just notified 1.4 million Americans that they had interacted with accounts likely connected to a Russian troll army thinks bots are good for its platform and users. 

With some provisos, of course. 

Twitter is explicitly designed to allow for the creation and deployment of automated accounts. And there are plenty of great ones out there, with uses spanning the informative to the entertaining

Need a bot that alerts you every time someone makes a payment to the Bitcoin address associated with the WannaCry ransomware attack? It’s yours. Want something that shows you emoji meadows? Sure, why not

Twitter has gone and will likely continue to go after automated accounts that violate its terms of service, but even when it comes to truly malicious bots no process is going to be 100 percent successful in identifying and removing them. Some will always slip through the cracks. 

There’s also that uncomfortable little truth that automated accounts juice user engagement metrics. In March 2017, researchers from Indiana University and the University of Southern California found that anywhere between 9 and 15 percent of Twitter accounts are bots. Assuming their assessment was mostly correct, and that there are potentially 30 million fake accounts on Twitter, deleting them all wouldn’t look good for Twitter’s monthly active user numbers. 

Essentially, as long as your system is set up specifically to allow bots, there will be bots. For Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, that’s more than just the cost of doing business — it’s part of the business.

Botbook

Facebook isn’t much different. The company is disturbingly obsessed with its real-name policy — ostensibly to better ensure authenticity on its platform or some other coded pro-ad-tracking speak — and yet it has fully embraced the bot. Just look to Facebook Messenger and all the bots that the Menlo Park-based company proudly boasts are a force for social good. 

At a time when people are really and truly not happy with Facebook, why would anyone at the company go out of his or her way to strike a PR win from the record? They won’t.

And anyway, bots can actually be good for Facebook’s bottom line. The more they engage with you, the more data you generate, and, consequently, the more advertising opportunities they create. Facebook has no incentive to rid its various platforms of allowed automated bot services — on the contrary, it thrives on them. 

Image: JAAP ARRIENS/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES

Facebook is certainly less inclined to permit automated accounts on its marquee social media platform, but to completely rid it of them would be a massive undertaking. In November, the company admitted that there were approximately as many as 270 million fake accounts on its site. Sure, Facebook does and will continue to purge the most egregious offenders, but attempting to completely rid the platform of fake accounts — some of which surely are automated in some form or another — would likely catch many real users in the net. 

Facebook, just like all of us, has almost certainly come to terms with a certain amount of unwanted bots on its platform. It’s just the way things are, and the way they will continue to be. 

Instabot

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is not free from bots either. This past August Digiday explored how influencers use bots on the platform to gain a veneer of popularity. One example provided by the publisher was an automated system for liking and commenting on posts that included specific hashtags (in this case, dog related). 

The rough idea being that it would garner attention from the accounts receiving the likes and comments, which might, in turn, result in increased engagement and exposure for the influencer doing the liking. 

This also serves to clutter up the experience of the average Instagram user, but that’s just a side effect of the social media ecosystem doing its thing. 

Instagram says that it wants “to be an authentic and safe place for inspiration and expression,” and bots don’t have a role in that as far as Instagram is concerned. But will the company manage to totally eliminate them? 

Don’t bet on it. An instructive moment can be found way back in 2015, when, only a few months after what some referred to as the Instagram bot purge, The Wall Street Journal reported that potentially 8 percent of accounts on the platform were still bots. 

Sure, those numbers are old, but they speak to a larger social media truth: Bots are no easy target. 

Where bots thrive

Social media is the perfect environment for automated accounts — it’s where they thrive. They inflate engagement metrics, provide real services to users, help generate data on those same users, and are just plain difficult to completely weed out. 

Companies like Facebook and Twitter would love to be able to wave a magic wand and eliminate each and every account on their platform they deem to be problematic, but that’s not how the digital or IRL world works.

We know this. The social media giants know this. The people who make the bots that infect our online lives know this — and neither they, nor their creations, are going anywhere anytime soon. 

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