Blog Post

Bots and Their Potential

Bots and their Potential

What are bots?

Bots are tools that follow a coded script of instructions to complete a process. Bots can be algorithms designed to accomplish a certain task that is repetitive and could be done faster if a human were to do the same action. Some bots do not even need to be human controlled, there are some that will easily accomplish tasks without any input from their creator after they are let loose. Bots can be used for both good and evil purposes. A network of bots is given the name “Botnets” by Phillip N Howard and Bence Kollanyi from Oxford and Corvinus University respectively. This is combining of the two words robots and networks.

 

How Are They Created?

Bots are not that hard to make. A person with average intelligence involving computers can make the most basic bot. There are certain websites online that can give you step by step processes on how to make them for your very own specific purpose. As well as if you are more advanced, there is software online that you can download that allows you to build your own bots from the ground up. This allows you to build them to do whatever task that you want.

What bots can do?

Bots can do many different things. Bots can be the cause of all of the spam that you see regarding the products that you should buy just because you searched for a product once. The act of you looking up the product is learned and a “feeder bot” feeds you those advertisements.

An example of that would be when I looked up Adidas shoes. For the last couple of weeks, I got ads on all of the websites I went to. Let’s say I want to check the score for the football game.  What’s this is the right-hand corner of the screen next to the next article button? An Adidas ad for the exact same shoes I looked up previously.

Bots can also be used to fill information for purchases faster than a human could. This could be for a product launch to make sure the owner of the bot gets the limited merchandise. You would feed the bot your credit or debit card information and they can fill out the order form for you.

There are also instrumental bots “Instrumental bots are commonly used when a simple automated response or assistance is desired (e.g., Google Maps)” (Edwards, Edwards, Spence, Shelton).

As well as communicative bots, “whereas communicative bots are interactive and actually engage with people by mimicking human communication (e.g., Apple’s Siri)” (Edwards, Edwards, Spence, Shelton).

Bots can also be used in harmful ways such as trying to get personal information from others. They can even be used in cases as severe as hacks in companies. You hear about all of these big-name companies getting hacked and losing sensitive customer data. Bots are used in that hacking process in order to receive and send that data.

Bots can do all of this, but we need to keep an eye on them. “Concerning bots, it not fully clear which share they currently have in generating social media attention regarding public health research, and their future prospects require attention, too” (Leidl). Leidl talks about how bots are affecting public health in this quote. The final part of the quote rings just as hard. Bots are only going to improve. They have the possibility of becoming even more prevalent in our lives then they are now.

 

What they do on social media

Bots are prevalent in social media today. They can even get their own name depending on what media site they are on. “These Twitterbots, or virtual software agents, are employed to produce automated posts for a variety of purposes” (Edwards, Edwards, Spence, Shelton). According to Distil Networks there are an estimated fifteen percent of twitter accounts are bots. Bots in social media can do a lot. Bots can be used to do small things including liking the creators own social media post. “As well as being used to let people know of new account being followed by people that they followed” (Tufekci).

 

 

They are also created for making fake accounts and those fake accounts have the plan to amplify messages. This can lead to much bigger issue such as influencing opinions and people beliefs. A lot of people use social media for news and they will be influenced by what they see. That creates a problem if these messages are fake news stories.

Fake news can spread easily because it is made to garner attention. “Fake news sites exist mainly because they can make a fly-by-night profit by attracting eyeballs to ads” (Bayer). Fake news is made to grab people’s attention, it is made to be shared in attempt to share misinformation. Most people typically do not do more research on news that they find on social media. If they see it is a popular story and shared by multiple people, they will assume it is true. This completes the bot’s job and sends the wrong messages to countless people.

Bots are also capable of limiting free speech. There is an example during the Arab Spring movement 2010. “The Arab government used bots in order to flood popular social sites and news stations in order to push down and push away tweets as well as stories” (Finger). Tweets as well as stories from activist and journalist that covered the issue in a way that did not favor the government’s viewpoint were pushed down.

Why to avoid them?

Bots on social media and online are a simple program. They have this stigma that they are used for illegal or dangerous purposes. Of course, this can be a use for them, however all bots are not used for that purpose. You have to be careful making sure what or who you really are communicating with while online.

A reason to avoid bots is security. Bots are able to spread and receive information extremely fast. A bot can be used to attack a social media account and get passwords as well as sensitive information. This can be done without the owner of the account even knowing. Often times people find out that they have been hacked after it is too late. A bot can be used to get into someone’s email account. That is why you are pushed to have stronger passwords and not to repeat passwords.

How to avoid them?

There are some steps that can be taken to try and avoid bots on social media. Some things to consider is the name. Does the name specifically state that it is a bot? You could look at a bio of a profile. Does it look like it was written by a real human? Another key thing to check is how often the profile post. If it is constantly posting every 10 minutes repeating a similar idea it may be an account that warrants suspicion.  Is it just making the same post over and over again? That is an easier giveaway.

There are also ways to block out others bots not just social media bots. One way according to it still works website you can use a CAPTCHA. “Install a "CAPTCHA" script to prevent bots from spamming website pages and contact forms” (Reichert). Those are the little activities that you have to do to prove you are not a bot. Some examples are pick all the pictures with a school bus in them. Type the letters and numbers you see in the box below. Type the audio that you hear after you hit play. A less common one, but that is still used is orientating the image correctly.

What can be done about them?

 

 

 

Right now, there are some steps that can be taken. One of them is to try not to interact with bots and share their message. This stops their message from spreading and causing more damage. Depending on the social media site you may have an option to report the suspected bot as well.

There are also steps that are being taken by companies. Fakebook makes sure that you are a real person and makes you use a real name. That does not rule out all bots, but that is a good place to start. Twitter has recently come out and said that they are going to start being more aggressive with terminating bots and fake accounts, however it will take time.

Personally, in terms of security purposes you can update your passwords often and keep them to yourself. Make sure to log out of important emails and profiles on computers that are not your own.

There has even now been action by states to try and protect people from bots. “In the state of California, a legislator has recently put forward legislation that will force companies to protect users from bots” (Zima). This comes forward due to finding of Russian interference in the state during the 2016 election. More research was done, and it was found that “At least 400,000 thousand bots were responsible for about 3.8 million tweets, roughly 19 percent of the total volume during election season, according to Recode” (Zima).

The action the bill will require is to make all social media sites verify any advertising and make sure it can be linked to a human. As well as making sure accounts that are found to be fake are terminated.

Bots have a purpose in todays world. We just need to find the best and safest way to use them. That way we can spread less misinformation and make the world a safer and smarter place both online and in the real world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Bayer, B. (2016, December 5). Developing a critical nose for news.Medium.Retrieved from https://medium.com/@benbayer_62236/the-sniff-test-cb5727f319a6

Edwards, C., Edwards, A., Spence, P., & Shelton, A. (2014). Is that a bot running the social media feed? testing the differences in perceptions of communication quality for a human agent and a bot agent on twitter. Computers in Human Behavior, 33, 372-376. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.08.013

Finger, L. (2015, February 17). Do Evil - The Business Of Social Media Bots. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/lutzfinger/2015/02/17/do-evil-the-business-...

Leidl, R. (2019). Social media, bots and research performance. European Journal of Public Health, 29(1).

Reichert, Robin. “How to Stop Bot Attacks.” It Still Works, 10 Jan. 2019, itstillworks.com/stop-bot-attacks-8606238.html.

Social Media Bots. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.distilnetworks.com/glossary/term/social-media-bots/

Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. London, UK: Yale University Press.

Zima, E. (2018). California wants to govern bots and police user privacy on social media. Government Technology, N/a.

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