Saturday, 19 May 2018 04:10

On The Internet, Bots Have Already Overrun Humans. What Do They Want?

By  Michael Durkheimer

 Source: This article was published By Michael Durkheimer - Contributed by Member: Alex Grey

According to a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center, “bots” account for more activity on Twitter than humans:

  • 66% of all tweets that share links to popular websites and articles are shared by “bots” — accounts that are not associated with a real human user.
  • The most active 500 Twitter bots are responsible for 22% off all tweeted links, making them four times as prolific as their nearest human counterparts (the 500 most prolific humans on Twitter only account for 6% of shares). On The Internet, Bots Have Already Overrun Humans. What Do They Want?

While both of these findings suggest that bots have already overrun humans on Twitter, a subset of Pew’s findings suggests a potential goal: bots account for 89% of the links shared to news aggregator websites.

Why does this matter? News aggregator websites — such as Google News and other apps — use algorithms to determine what articles to show you, from what sources and in what order. It’s likely that the incredible amount of bot activity on Twitter is designed to manipulate these algorithms. If you can manipulate what’s shared, you can manipulate what people see. The way these algorithms work is often propriety (see The Guardian’s 2013 analysis of how Google News’ algorithm determines what sources/articles are more relevant and reliable). Yet, it appears that the overwhelming majority of the sharing, which likely informs these algorithms, is controlled by bots — not real individuals.

News aggregators are not the only websites using algorithms. Facebook uses an algorithm to determine what to show users on their Newsfeed. Twitter also uses an algorithm to determine what people see on their Timeline. Even search results on Google may be impacted by sharing activity on social media websites like Twitter (although Google has denied that it gives any special preference to social media as a ranking signal, saying that Google’s algorithm looks at social media just as they look at links on any other website). Even if you don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, what you see on the internet — what news stories “go viral” and rise to the top — are very likely to be affected by link-sharing bots.

What do the bots want? It is hard to say. Many assume that the primary goal of bot-driven sharing is part of political propaganda efforts. During the 2016 presidential election, one study suggested that a third of pro-Trump tweets and a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets were generated by bots. However, Pew’s recent analysis did not confirm any ideological bias in the sharing activity of bots. Instead, Pew found that bots share more links to ideologically mixed and centrist news sites (versus sites with a conservative or liberal bent).

This does not necessarily mean that bot-sharing has no political agenda. Foreign governments, such as Russia, can promote certain messages and narratives (true or fake) in order to sow chaos and discord in the United States. For example, after Friday’s joint missile strikes on Syria by the U.S., the U.K. and France, the Pentagon reported that it saw a 2,000 percent increase in activity by Russian “trolls.” A 2017 study by human rights group Freedom House concluded that 30 foreign governments are now using online propaganda tools, like bots, to manipulate and distort information online.

Even if bots share true news stories, the prolific sharing power of bots (as compared to human users) is a serious risk to the integrity of the internet. With this power, bots can make certain news narratives look more popular and pressing, while simultaneously crowding-out and suppressing others. With a two-thirds majority of activity on Twitter, the bots may be the ones who get to decide: see this, not that.

Twitter recently announced that it is attempting to combat the problem by implementing new restrictions that prevent third-party apps from allowing people to bulk tweet from multiple accounts at once. These new policies went into effect after the time period observed by Pew researchers in the recent study.

When Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified this week before Congress, he revealed that Facebook is taking an interesting non-human step to combat Facebook’s own bot problem. As Zuckerberg explained: “We’ve deployed new A.I. tools that do a better job of identifying fake accounts that may be trying to interfere in elections or spread misinformation” and, due to this effort, Facebook recently removed “tens of thousands of accounts before they could contribute significant harm.”

It’s essentially an arms race of bots vs. bots, and Zuckerberg acknowledged as much: “The nature of these attacks ... is that there are people in Russia whose job it is is to try to exploit our systems … so this is an arms race. They are going to keep getting better at this and we need to invest in keeping on getting better at this too.”

However, much of the bot activity online may be motivated by financial interests, not politics. Another recent study on bot activity concluded that many bots are tweeting about certain publicly traded companies in order to manipulate stock prices. The presumed goal of these bots (and the unknown humans or companies behind them) would be to make money in the stock market by trading ahead of these artificial fluctuations in public perception. Another finding in Pew's recent analysis suggests that many bots are simply part of corporate marketing efforts to sell more products. Pew found that 73% of links to commercial products and services are shared by bots. This bot activity is likely implemented by companies who want to make certain products seem more popular — with the hope that unsuspecting consumers will see these seemingly buzzed-about products in searches and purchase them.

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