Bots are making their presence felt on social media. But can you tell a bot from a real person?
Anyone who’s been playing the social media game for a while should know that not all of their followers bleed when they are cut. In fact, many followers don’t even exist – they are just bits and bytes.
“Bot” is short for robot, in much the same way “shroom” is short for mushroom. A bot on a social network is no more than a virtual presence created by a set of automated instructions.
The bots are following you.
And, more than likely, you are following some of them, too.
Does any of this matter to you? Some people really don’t care. The more the merrier, whether human or otherwise. Others care a great deal, sometimes being quite consumed over whether a follower is a real person or not.
I am in between. I don’t really care who follows me, but I am a little pickier about whom I follow.
So it was with interest that I read an MIT story about the bot named lajello, who (Can I say “who”, or should I say “that”?) became the second most popular “person” on the Italian social network aNobii. A quick glance at the “Italian” social network, which is all in English, makes me wonder if the whole community is made up of bots, but that is not the point of our investigation today.
Today’s investigation is how to tell if you are following a bot, or more to the point, how to recognize a bot or fake account on a social network like Twitter before accidentally following it.
The most obvious way to quickly do triage between bots and real people is to check out their smile. If they are smiling, there is a good chance they are real. If they are frowning, they are likely real, too, although they might just be real trouble.
But if they are not smiling because they have no head, that’s another matter. Real people don’t walk around without heads. If you see a generic icon for an avatar, chances are the account is a fake.
What if you see a company logo for an icon? Real, although it might not be just one person, but rather a team of company staff – sort of like a virtual group hug for profit.
What if the avatar is something else, such as an animal or a famous character? Could still be real. Or it could be fake. Best to check out other factors, which you should do anyway, because there are fake accounts with real faces (ah, the wonders of modern virtual face surgery!).
Check out their elevator speech
Every account has an elevator speech – a short summary of who they are or what they do. If that little snippet includes a link to a blog or company website, they are probably real. If there is something meaningful written, it is probably real.
If the snippet tries to sell you Twitter followers or FaceBook likes, who cares if it’s real? You don’t want to follow an account selling fake followers, even if the account itself is real. You could end up being a bot by association.
If the snippet is just a quote or a pithy saying that looks like it took no effort to create, that is another clue that the account might be fake. If the snippet is left blank, there is an even greater chance that it is fake. The again, some people don’t have much imagination and just leave it blank.
Do a quality assurance check
Check the tweets of the account. If they are all ads or all promotional or all meaningless or all just don’t feel right in some way or another, don’t follow them. Many accounts will have some meaningless tweets; most people post some drivel. Many will have sponsored tweets, because they get some money for that. Many will pitch products and services. All of that is fine. But if that is all they do…well, it’s up to you to decide whom you wish to follow.
Check out whom the account is following. If the “person” is following all real-looking accounts, then it is probably a real person. But if the account is following a fair number of fake accounts, you might want to stay away from them. Bots follow bots, and you probably don’t want to tag along at the end of a bot konga line.
Check out who is following them. This is less accurate, since even a good account can be followed by lots of bots. But it can give you one more signal as to the quality of the account.
Ultimately, there is no way to be 100 percent certain that an account is real, unless you came to the account from someone’s blog post, from their email or from some other place where you know they are real.
And all these guidelines still might erringly identify your next door neighbor, who hasn’t added a pic or a blurb to his profile, as a bot.
Don’t feel bad if you discover that one of your online buddies really is a bot. As the MIT story says:
It is not hard to see the significance of this work. Social bots are a fact of life on almost every social network and many have become so sophisticated they are hard to distinguish from humans. If the simplest of bots created by Aiello and co can have this kind of impact, it is anybody’s guess how more advanced bots could influence everything from movie reviews and Wikipedia entries to stock prices and presidential elections.
Written by David Leonhardt
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