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. In this second instalment of the Bots series, we look at bots' main uses, both on social media and off it.

NB: Credit for this article's header image goes to FranckV on Unsplash.

Officially, social media bots are deployed by social media platforms themselves, as well as companies or entities who operate pages and accounts on these platforms. A platform like Twitter might use bots to assist users with reporting certain content or conduct and similar help-desk issues. On the other hand, news organisations might use Facebook Messenger bots to reach a wider audience to break a story, and create a sense of dialogue, immediacy, and intimacy. Such chatbots work by picking up on keywords in a user's question and matching those keywords to quotes or articles already in the news outlet's database. Alternatively, the chatbots will suggest certain questions to you directly, before providing a tailored answer. In short, official social media bots exist to smooth over certain procedures, grow audiences or customer bases for companies, and promote marketing campaigns.

The intention behind the deployment of unofficial bots, however, is harder to state definitively. First off, we need to differentiate bots from shills on social media. While it's true that bots and shills both qualify as inauthentic social media profiles, shills are human-operated, whereas bots require little to no human intervention to be 'active' — to like, share, retweet, and even comment on content. For their part, shills are people hired to give a seemingly impartial or authoritative endorsement of something in which they actually have an undisclosed interest.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Speaking to the German Bundestag last January, Prof Dr Dr Dietmar Janetzko defined social bots as "programs that act on the basis of a false identity within social media, where they try to influence opinion-making processes." And that's as fair a description as any. As we'll cover in section 3. Bot power, bots operating on social media are principally designed to sway your thinking. To do this they might: artificially boost certain hashtags or keywords, or drown out unfavourable content by spam-commenting or misusing a topical hashtag. Bots might also engage you in direct debate, but this is fairly rare. That's because, as I mentioned in Part 0, replicating natural, spontaneous dialogue is a significant computational challenge. One we haven't yet surpassed.

The next instalment of this series is Part 3: Spotting bots (& avoiding them)