If you’re on Twitter for any length of time, you’ll likely encounter what’s known as a “bot” – an automated account that sends spam links, follows random users, or retweets messages that contain a certain phrase. Most people know there are quite a few bots on Twitter, but some new research from The University of Southern California and Indiana University shows just how widespread the issue is.
According to their numbers, up to 15% of the site’s likes, retweets, and follows – up to 48 million accounts – aren’t coming from human hands. Researchers used over 1,000 benchmarks to detect Twitter bots, including their content, time between tweets, and categories. And since the report admits that complex bots likely weren’t included in this report, the real number of bots is even higher.
Those numbers are far above the number of bots Twitter thinks they have. In a filing with the SEC not too long ago, they estimated that “up to 8.5 percent” of accounts ran without human intervention.
For a site that has struggled to grow its user base, that’s not necessarily the best news.
The USC report pointed out that many of these bots are malicious, actively emulating human behavior to drum up grass roots support for causes or political campaigns, or even worse, to promote terrorism propaganda. If you run your own blog, you’re likely well versed in the “annoying but not malicious” spam style of bot.
Of course, not all bots are bad. A Twitter representative noted that “many bot accounts are extremely beneficial, like those that automatically alert people of natural disasters…or from customer service points of view.” USC researchers echoed the same sentiment, saying “many social bots perform useful functions, such as dissemination of news and publications…”
Despite the fact that Twitter has a system for reporting malicious bots and despite the fact that several services exist to point out fake follower bots, it seems like bots are a crucial part of the site that’s here to stay.