Who won the final presidential debate? Clinton? Trump? You’ve probably already decided for yourself and are now perusing social media to figure out what everyone else thinks. Maybe that’s how you came across this article. Well, we have a piece of advice for you: “Stop!”
While social media has been the place for Americans to share their thoughts on the 2016 presidential debates, it has also become a hub for political spamming from bots. Political bots are fake automated social media accounts that pose as passionate patriots. They are often programmed to post over 50 political messages per day, flooding our news feeds with automated tweets that are in favor of one political party and viciously against the opposition.
Their online presence during this election cycle has been substantial. In fact, researchers at Oxford University found that during the first presidential debate, bots drove about a third of pro-Trump Twitter traffic and a fifth of pro-Clinton Twitter traffic. We can never be sure if these Twitter propaganda bots are generated by political parties, ardent supporters, or the presidential candidates themselves. What we do know is that political bots and fake accounts make for a lousy social media strategy. By taking over social media feeds, bots can trick users into believing that certain views on political events, policies, and even candidates are more popular than they actually are. Online polls asking the social media community to determine the winner of each presidential debate may actually be driven by fake accounts instead of public opinion. Even inactive bots can be used to boost the follower counts of political social media profiles, in order to exaggerate their number of supporters.
Talk to the Bot
Fake followers also have real consequences outside of the political sphere. For businesses, fake accounts get in the way of engagement with potential customers (i.e. real followers) and can jeopardize a brand’s credibility. For the average Joe, bots clog up your news feed with ad spam and put you at risk for phishing.
It’s getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between well-designed bots and actual people, but there are some ways you can identify and get rid of the fake followers on your social media accounts. To find them the old-fashioned way, you can often identify them based on certain activity characteristics. They tend to have few followers, and either post more than is humanly possible or are completely inactive. If you have a modest following, you might be able to block any bots you come across one-by-one, but if you’re a business or an “Internet celebrity”, platforms like Tweepi and TwitterAudit allow you to find and delete fake followers with a few clicks.
Now don’t get us wrong; bots aren’t all bad. An increasing number of companies are using them to communicate with customers easily and accessibly. And a lot of bots have been created to make us laugh, like @StealthMountain on Twitter, which “alerts Twitter users that they typed ‘sneak peak’ when they meant ‘sneak peek’”. But if the 2016 election has taught us anything, other than the fact that a red sweater and a creepy moustache can propel you to meme-status (*cough* Kenneth Bone *cough*), it’s that you shouldn’t believe everything you see is authentic, because there’s a good chance that it isn’t.
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