How Social Media Bots Massively Boost the Reach of Misinformation

Social media bots and misinformation

The Internet has brought wonderful opportunities that many people never thought was possible. A large chunk of the scientific, mathematical and historical knowledge mass that humans have collected over decades and centuries can now be accessed by almost anyone with an Internet connection. Want to learn about the digits of pi, details of the Roman empire or chemical data for the noble gas argon? All of it can be found on the Internet from reputable sources that you can trust. However, these riches have not come without a considerable of anti-intellectual pollution.

Because almost anyone can put up their own website or start a social media account, the spread of pseudoscience, bigotry and general nonsense is now probably larger than ever before. Flat earthers that use to be a marginalized group of wackos have now expanded their operations with thousands of hours of original materials on video hosting websites and at least tens of thousands of tweets pushing their batshit ignorance of the world. Anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists have created entire networks of social media accounts, pages and groups to spread their dangerous nonsense to vulnerable people and may have played a role in the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

What are the misinformation wars?

These issues and many more have recently erupted into what has become known as the misinformation wars. This involves the reduced interest in truth and facts, the rapid spread of fake news and other forms of misleading content and isolated social media communities that exclude contrary information that goes against the ideological narrative. Astonishingly, this has even brought on Orwellian-style alternative facts, and even the rise of fake fact-checkers that further muddles the water of what is real and what is just nonsense. Although some of this can be blamed on the mainstream media that spent decades undermining science and critical thinking by promoting false balance on settled science, clickbait articles and sensationalizing preliminary scientific findings, it has developed into an extreme situation with multiple perpetrators and battlefields.

Yet, there is an even more sinister aspect that has not been covered all that much. It involves using social media bots to boost the reach of pseudoscience and bigotry to millions of users worldwide.

Twitter bots

A Twitter bot is a program that automates activity on the social media platform Twitter. This can include automatically tweeting out content, responding to customer questions, and retweeting tweets that mention certain keywords. Some Twitter bots are fun, whereas others are just a tool to push spam on social media. Because Twitter bots can sometimes respond to users interaction, this has even led to different Twitter bots getting locked into an long-term “conversations” by sending messages and images to each other.

There is, however, a dark side to Twitter bots. They can be used to push misinformation to millions of people, manipulate pools, and even influence political perceptions and possibly even general elections.

Manipulating trending topics

Twitter bots can be used to automatically tweet under hashtags of trending topics to push malicious claims to millions of people. Although the official Twitter rules do not allow this because it degrades the user experience, it is likely not perfectly enforced. Because social media is based a complex networks of users, these tweets can get a very high reach. They can also use all the other features of Twitter, such as mentions and replies to further spread their content. This too is not allowed according to the Twitter rules unless it is done under very specific circumstances.

Because of the way that social media algorithms work, these Twitter bots can have far-reaching influences across the Internet, such as entering the trending topics on Facebook or lists of popular news stories on Google or similar services. This, in turn, further boosts and amplifies the message. Clearly, this system is highly vulnerable to abuse by professional misinformation activists that want to obscure the facts.

Filter bots

There are other kinds of bots on social media websites like Twitter that does not focus on tweeting material to influence people. Rather, their main purpose is to modify the user experience of people who subscribe to the services provided by the bot. This can come in a large variety features, from creating feeds for community benefits, retweeting material from different sources to specifically excluding material from specific sources. This can involve blocking keywords, hashtags and users and could thus reasonably be called filter bots. They simply filter out content deemed uninteresting, harmful or plain dumb, although Twitter itself has taken over some of these functions, making certain filter bots redundant.

In essence, using filter bots allows you to potentially modify the user experience of an arbitrary large number of people who subscribe to those services. Are there some people you do not like? The filter bot can block those accounts on every user who subscribe to it. Do not like people who follow people you do not like? The filter bot can block these as well. Do not like people who tweet about certain topics or using certain hashtags? Those can be filtered out of the user experience as well. As long as these bots follow the Twitter rules, they are allowed to be used. They do not infringe on the rights of anyone and many were originally developed with good intentions to e. g. block out the worst kind of social media harassment. However, they have been co-opted by dark forces to create highly isolated filter bubbles that can have profound effects on people who use them and their communities.

Embracing technological weapons

The promotion of pseudoscientific nonsense has reached epidemic proportions. Professional misinformation spreaders are not only pushing stuff like fake news, “alternative facts” and social media filter bubbles. They are now actively employing technological tools to artificially boost their reach and sometimes even having broader effects across several social media platforms and news distribution services. They might even have had a discernible influence on the United States general election.

Pseudoscience activists are now embracing different technological weapons at their disposal. This is a concentrated effort to downplay facts and undermine critical thinking.

This is likely only the beginning.

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Categories: Skepticism

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  1. How Social Media Bots Massively Boost the Reach of Misinformation | Emil Karlsson

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