The word 'bot' is splashed around all over the internet. All you've ever wanted to know about social media bots is a 6-part series attempting to establish what bots actually are — and how you might recognise the misleading ones. What follows is Part 1: an introduction to this series.

NB: Credit for this article's header image goes to Rock'n Roll Monkey on Unsplash

Definitions

At its most basic, a 'bot' is a piece of software which can carry out tasks with little to no human intervention. They perform messaging, online searches, and other routine actions dictated by computing code, or 'script'. A bot might be the little window that pops up while you're shopping online, offering you a cheaper price from another outlet; it could be the push notification from your favourite news app alerting you to a breaking story. There are also transactional bots — these can report incidents, act as help desks, schedule appointments, or assist with certain tasks like transferring money. Then there are 'chatbots': specifically designed to interact with humans as naturally as possible (extremely difficult), to provide entertainment and companionship.

'Chatbots' is, however, a slightly misleading term. If you're an ordinary netizen rather than a programmer, most bots you'll come across will require some kind of written conversation to execute your commands. So when a virtual assistant asks if it can help you with your retail purchase, its purpose isn't to speak with you — it's to get you to buy the product. But it still 'speaks' to you. In that sense, many user-facing bots 'talk', without being specialised chatbots. This is an important distinction. Meanwhile, bots operating in the background include things like 'crawlers' or 'spiders', which request certain data from websites' APIs, or copy webpages that you've already accessed so a search engine can index them, thereby making your search results more effective.

The bots we know

It's really the social media incarnation of bots which inhabits the forefront of our thoughts. A Pew survey carried out across July-August 2018 found that 66% of adults in the US say they have heard about bots on social media. Of those adults claiming to have heard of bots before, 80% believed they were "mostly used for bad purposes". Nevertheless, 34% of respondents said they new nothing about bots.

In other words: two in three Americans over the age of 21 have heard about social media bots — and if you have heard of them, you're also four times more likely to consider them malicious. Alternatively, you've never heard of them at all. Which means that the two most salient collective sentiments about bots to emerge from this survey are fear and ignorance. And in an environment marked by distrust on one hand, and a knowledge vacuum on the other, misconceptions and conspiracies are likely to thrive.

This series hopes to answer some key questions.

Part 1. What do bots do on social media, officially and unofficially?

Part 2. What are the signs of a bot account? How can you avoid bots?

Part 3. On bot power:

a. What is their impact?

b. Who or what is behind bots?

c. Who is most targeted, or most susceptible to them?

Part 4. Where will bot technology go next?

The next instalment of this series is Part 2: Bot purpose(s)