What are 'bots' and how can they spread fake news?

From coronavirus to climate change, computer programmes called bots are often used to spread false news on social media.

Sometimes news and topics that are trending on social media can feel like they have come out of nowhere. Often, that’s just the nature of news online – new stories are developing all the time and people love to hear what’s going on, particularly at a time of national crisis. Although not everything you see online is a fact.

Certain news seems too sensational or scary to be true, and yet loads of people appear to be falling for it. That’s because some people actively attempt to manipulate online spaces with bad aims in mind. And one of the tools they use to do this is something called ‘bots’.

Tech author Carl Miller asks if everything we see on social media comes from real accounts.

What exactly are bots and how do they work?

There are both good and bad bots on the internet. They are programmes that automatically do tasks - you may have 'chatted' to one online. But on social media, some people can use them to pretend to be real people, automatically writing messages or doing other things that normal people do.

If you use lots of bots together, it’s possible to create a buzz around a certain person, issue or topic, so as to push a point of view or agenda. Some people even pay for bots to push their products or posts.

Why do people use bots?

The actual computer programs themselves aren’t evil or sinister, and some ‘good’ bots are used positively. For example, Canadian broadcaster CBC created an instant chat service which actually used bots to automatically answer people’s questions about fake news, helping them to understand in time for the country’s October 2019 elections. Even Twitter says in their guidelines that “Not all bots are bad… high-quality bots can enhance everyone’s experience”.

So what false stories do ‘bad’ bots spread?

With almost half of UK adults coming across fake news around coronavirus during the crisis, it’s clear that a lot of myths and rumours about Covid-19 are clogging up social media feeds. There’s evidence to suggest that many of these posts are being pushed by bots.

Bot tracking websites and cybersecurity companies have been tracking #coronavirus and #covid19 which have both had huge numbers of tweets a day that are very likely to be bots. Cybersecurity company Radware has suggested that a 27% increase in ‘bad’ bot traffic for February was due to bots exploiting coronavirus fears, commenting under posts with fake personal Covid-19 stories.

Another issue that has fallen victim to bot-spamming is the environment. Using a “Botometer” – really, that’s what it was called – researchers at Brown University in the USA recently reported that a quarter of tweets on climate change were likely posted by bots. Most of these were programmed with the aim of spreading climate denial, and tweets that were talking about “fake science” were found to have been written by bots 38% of the time.

Find out more about the fake stories bots are spreading on social media.

But how do you actually spot a bot?

Bots are able to hide on social media, but there are a few key things to watch out for when you see posts or messages that you’re suspicious of:

Advice on how to spot a bot on social media.
  1. Profile – have a look over their account; do they seem real? Watch out for no picture, a bio that has spelling mistakes and no followers. If they have just recently joined the social media platform, it could be a giveaway that the account has only been created to promote others’ posts

  2. Posts – how often do they comment, tweet or post? Lots and lots of posts in a short time span is a sign that the account could be automated

  3. Point of view – what do they usually talk about? If the account is always banging on about the same thing for days on end and using the same hashtags over and over, they might be being programmed do this.

Of course, some humans can look a lot like bots, and plenty of bots do a really good job of looking like humans! You won’t spot all of them, but being aware they’re out is a really good start.

Where next?

How does fake news spread?
Be social media smart: Is seeing believing?
Why the news we see online isn't always what we think it is
Fact or Fake?