Attack of the Twitter Bots!

Recently one of the people I follow tweeted out a HELP! on Twitter.  She’s suddenly gotten THIRTY followers!  She’s a blogger with a healthy number of real (“organic”) followers (over 800) but suddenly her “phone was going off!” with these thirty new people who all jumped on her Twitter account, following all at one time?

What was happening? 

She was being “attacked” by a botnet.

More on this in a moment. 

What are Bots?

When you see someone with over 100,000 tweets to their credit, you have to ask, is this an “organic” follower?  That is, is this a real person who sits at the computer, has a sandwich, and reads your tweets?   Or is this a noxious bot follower?

What is a Twitter bot?  

A bot is an account that serves as a conduit for bulk feeding of tweets into Twitter.  News organizations use them to load in all their newspaper articles. Commercial advertisers use them to distribute all kinds of content marketing, from political issues to dogfood,  blogging tools, and other things people buy.

Bots can be simple or complex. They’re often carefully made up to look like “real people.”

Bots follow people in order to get people to follow them.  It’s simple reciprocity going here.  Wow,  I have a new follower!  I feel rewarded!  They look cool (oh, they have to be cool because they are following me!).  But when you follow them back, your feed from Twitter could begin to consist of more of their tweets than anyone else’s.

Your “organic community” are people who read your stuff, whom you follow and who follow you back.

Most bloggers want to hear from their “organic community” — real people who read their blogs and who want to socialize; bloggers often “follow-back” those who follow them in order to engage their crowds more effectively and create that organic community.

Because bots create a huge number of tweets and have large followings, their “footprint” on Twitter can be like that of a Great Dane.  You and I?  We’re chihuahuas by comparison.  Because of their careful gaming of the Twitter algorithm, bots can have very big “voices.”  You may notice that the accounts that try to sell you stuff are more prevalent in your feed, while you may be missing tweets from people who don’t tweet so often — that is, from your “organic community.”

Twitter’s algorithms are always trying to figure out who you want to hear from; bot-creators try to figure out how to beat those algorithms, so they can get into more people’s Twitter feeds. They pollute the Twitter environment with their artificially amplified voices.

Bot followers do not read your stuff.

Bots only emit vast number of tweets. If you follow them, you will begin to miss content from ACTUAL PEOPLE whom you follow, if you follow them back.

Bots can have good content. I like Problogger (Daryl Rowse) and clearly his content is put out there by a team using bot-type feeders, but it’s not that intrusive.  I don’t find Daryl’s feed annoying. Maybe I get three to six tweets a week from him that I see.  I like what I’m getting and I’m confident my followers will find it worthwhile.

Most bots are annoying, filling my feed up with ten to twenty tweets A DAY–mostly trying to sell me products to improve my followership.  I unfollow them hard.

My Twitter friend’s bot followers were a bot-net. They’re more insidious.  When you reach a certain size of an organic following–approach 1,000 is about right–then advertising bot-nets WANT YOUR FOLLOWERS.  They attach in groups like this, hoping you’ll follow–but also to RETWEET your content.

Bots need followers and they also need original content to grow their own followership.  If you’re successfully providing content to a crowd that bots want to market to, then retweeting your content may help them find more followers. Because clearly, you’re providing value.  They can just retweet you and get more of the same quality followers you are getting. And they can out-compete you, too, because they’re so amplified. 

ONE bot is a nuisance.  THIRTY bots could be a problem.  On the one hand, their number expands your followership and that can have positive impact for you in the Twitter algorithm.  This could also enhance your score in search engines, potentially (no one really knows as that’s proprietary, but allegedly, large followerships count).   But truly, they have the greater advantage. When you retweet these fake followers, you spread the infection to your followers–which is great for the bot. It’s like a cold germ, moving through the Twit-o-sphere.

Don’t follow them and better yet, kick them off, especially when they appear in groups in your followership.

How did I know they were bots?   First, all thirty had remarkably different and believable profiles. Beautiful done, clap-clap, impressively deceptive.  But they all jumped on at the same time.  They all had huge numbers of tweets. And VERY telling, they all had the very same words in their profiles “social media enthusiast.”   All of them.

The best piece out there on how to spot a bot is, hands down, this piece by the Digital Forensics Research Lab, Twelve Ways to Spot a Bot.”

Highly recommended. These are the top researchers in bot-spotting! And it’s a fun and easy to read blog article! 

I explained this to my friend and she said, “I think I’ll block them. I want to hear from my organic community.”

Brava. I want to hear from REAL people too.

Be careful out there!    ~ Lola







Author: Lola

Recovering academic, real-life, honest to cornflakes anthropologist (Ph.D. and fieldwork and everything), tech-head and social media researcher.

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