Social media bots pose less of a threat spreading harmful messages and misinformation than previously thought, research suggests.
Messages posted by bots on divisive issues such as Brexit, immigration or climate have far less impact on users’ views than those from famous people and influencers, researchers say.
Their findings show that Twitter posts shared by people with more than 10,000 followers have the greatest influence on the opinions of other users.
Previous research has shown that social media bots – automated accounts designed to mimic human behaviour – are involved in spreading misinformation and harmful content. Few studies, however, have explored if posts shared by bots have any real impacts on other users’ perspectives.
The new study by the University of Edinburgh analysed how bots affect users’ views on seven contentious topics. Data from more than 4,000 Twitter users, expressing views on each topic, was used to study direct and indirect interactions with more than 19 million other accounts, including bots.
The effect bots have on behaviours that shape users’ views – such as likes, retweets or comments on posts – was compared with other account types, such as held by influencers and famous people.
Bots were found to have very limited relation to users’ stance on different topics. On average, they made up less than 10 per cent of the accounts that had direct or indirect impacts on users’ opinions.
By contrast, people with 10,000-plus followers, on average, made up more than half of accounts affecting users’ views. This rose to more than 70 per cent when people’s views were shaped by exposure to negative messages on topics by influencers on social media.
The study is published in the journal Social Network Analysis and Mining. An open access version of the paper is available here: https://www.research.ed.ac.uk/en/publications/characterizing-the-role-of-bots-in-polarized-stance-on-social-med.
Dr Walid Magdy, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, who led the study, said: “Millions of people rely on social media as their main news source, which means that information they see there can have a major bearing on the views they hold. Our study suggests that fears of bots spreading harmful messages on social media might be overrated. Our findings show that influencers and celebrities have the most impact on opinions, not bots. This is the case for various topics, and may also apply to current concerns about bots that spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories and views opposing vaccines.”
Social Network Analysis and Mining