In Brief

For Americans, Social Media Bots Are Almost Indistinguishable from Humans

A new survey from the Pew Research Center found that 93% of Americans had little confidence in their ability to identify which social media accounts were run by real people versus bots.

The bots, specially on Twitter, can make you Scream (image by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Or maybe she’s armed with thousands of social media bots programmed to boost her numbers on Instagram.

An October 2018 survey released by the Pew Research Center found that 93% of Americans polled had little confidence in their ability to identify which social media accounts were run by real people versus bots. The detailed research study arrives almost two years after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, which first raised alarms that the nation was subject to a Russian political influence campaign through online platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Congressional hearings, internal company investigations, and academic research have all suggested that the goal of social media bots is to spread misinformation and “fake news” in order to polarize the electorate and destabilize the United States.

National coverage of the ongoing controversy has propelled social media bots into the mainstream. According to the Pew Center, about two-thirds of Americans (or 66%) have heard about fake online accounts. And of those, another two-thirds (or about 44% of the total population surveyed) believe that social media bots have a negative effect on how well-informed Americans are. By comparison, only 11% believe that these fake accounts have a positive effect on discourse.

The main contrast that the survey highlights is between the high confidence Americans expressed in recognizing “fake news” in an earlier study (84% of respondents) compared to a widespread lack of confidence in distinguishing social media bots from real humans. The polarity between these two studies highlights a paradox of perception between those who think they can identify “fake news” but not fake people. In fact, the recent Pew Center study reveals that about 81% of those who have heard about the fake accounts believe that a fair amount of news comes from those bots.

Even when broken down into demographics, virtually no age group or gender favors the dissemination of political propaganda by bots, although a high 78% of respondents who knew about social media bots said that they approved of government agencies using them to post emergency updates. Still, only 20% of people ages 18–29 believe that political parties should use bots to share information that favors or disfavors one candidate. A smaller 8% of that category thinks that it’s okay for organizations or individuals to have bots spread made-up news or false information online. By comparison, the percentiles for people ages 50–64 were 26% and 5%, respectively.

Interestingly, 68% of respondents said that they disapproved of celebrities using bots to gain more followers on social media. On Twitter and Instagram, celebrities and social media influencers alike have used bots to pad their numbers, making them more attractive to advertising companies in the process. This fabricated type of popularity has been the subject of multiple New York Times reports.

Back in 2015, artist Constant Dullaart wrote in Hyperallergic about his project to buy 2.5 million fake followers from Lithuania as a commentary on the value of audience quantification in the art world, which is said to have its own problems with social media bots.

But not all bots are economically or politically motivated. The art world certainly loves its fair share of fake fan accounts, which, for example, tweet out messages from Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Susan Sontag’s diaries.

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