Your Empty Army of Followers

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Invasion of the Bots

Automated social media accounts – bots – have become a large part of our political communication. Even though everyone knows they are there and they are annoying. Believe it or not, bot armies can influence online discourse and actually pick fights with users. But are all bots bad?

Almost every Twitter user will have come across bots. Your brand new follower, whose profile picture is the generic egg, and who posts exactly once a day using vague words of questionable wisdom in 140 characters, is most probably such an automated account. Sorry to break the news to you…your follower does not really exist.

Also very common are spam bots for commercial purposes. Still others are more creative: The @MagicRealismBot (with close to 40,000 followers, certainly including a good number of other bots) has been programmed to randomly build and tweet sentences every two hours that imitate the writings of magic realist novelists such as Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Seriously, bots with thousands of bot followers, who generate random lines from fiction writers, fill your account and track you at the same time.

The rise of bots has thrown up a wide range of new issues. Last year, it was reported that a Dutch web developer was called in for questioning by police after their bot had, in a similarly random manner, put together a statement (tweeted at another bot, incidentally) which an internet detective read as a death threat.

The implications of bots for political discourse on social media are another open question.

Compared to other platforms like Facebook, bots are most easy to deploy and most effective on Twitter, and it is there that they have been used most commonly for political purposes.

Political bots come in different shapes: Fake followers mainly bolster the number of online supporters for a politician; bot armies “Twitter-bomb” discussions on certain topics in order to marginalize other viewpoints; and more sophisticated versions will react to certain keywords by starting a debate with others.

“Bots often get tangled up in each other’s scripts. We’ve seen them argue with each other. We’ve seen real people argue with bots,” Phil Howard, professor at the Oxford Internet Institute.

For individual users, bots can be tough to spot, according to Howard. There are certain pointers though, such as very unbalanced profiles.

Here is the sad conclusion: If one of the users in your network seems to have thousands of followers, but is only following one person, it is probably a bot. If it is following thousands of users, but has only one follower, it is probably a bot. Having a phantom following is simply sending your hard wrought writing off into the ether.

Check and see who…or actually what (if anything) is following you. You might have an empty house…

To your true success…

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