How to Spot a Bot

Category: Social-Networking

If you use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram at all, you have undoubtedly encountered a bot and probably have been its unwitting tool. Read on for some tips on how to tell a bot from a real person, how to recognize the bait they put out, and how to avoid becoming part of a misinformation campaign...

Are You Part of the Fake News Problem?

Whether you believe the Russians interfered in U. S. elections or not, there is no denying the existence of malicious social media “bots,” legions of phony accounts controlled by shadowy central authorities whose purposes are to sow confusion, misinformation, and discord.

“Social-media users need to be aware of their role in information laundering. If a user retweets, emails, or posts information taken from a less-than-credible point of origin, they now have become the new ‘source’ of that information for friends, family, [and] followers,” Bret Schafer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, recently told Mother Jones. “This is how false information really spreads.”

The controllers of botnets are experts at pushing people’s hot buttons, getting them to share whatever is put in front of them without pausing to think critically, or even read more than a headline. They also know how to weasel their bots into your inner circles, your lists of friends and other trusted persons. It’s your job to resist the bait and stay clear of bots.

How to Spot a Social Media Bot

Sociologists, statisticians, and other data-crunchers have developed complex metrics that gauge the probability that a social media account is not a real person but a bot. The math and science are hard, but here are some simplified rules that can help you avoid becoming a bot’s best friend: a gullible accomplice in spreading disinformation.

First, don’t befriend everything that sends you a friend request, even though you like to think of yourself as a “friendly” person. Likewise, resist the Twitter ethos of tit-for-tat following; you don’t have to follow an account just because it follows you. Take a moment to examine the account that is asking to get on a more intimate footing with you and ask, “Why?”

Often it pays to simply ask, “To what do I owe the honor of your friend request/following?” If the answer makes sense, it may be from a human being. But if it’s an unresponsive non sequitur like, “Let’s be friends” then there’s a good chance it’s not. Ask another question; if the answer seems “off,” then pass.

Fast, Furious and Phony

Hyperactivity is another sign of a bot. Few people have 50 or 60 Tweets or posts per day. But bots are programmed to be active to attract attention.

Profile pictures that look too good (or too crude) to be true are another sign of a bot. If a photo looks suspicious, run it through Google’s reverse image search. If you get multiple identical hits, it’s more likely it represents a bot.

More than one shortened URL in a Tweet or post should set off alarms. Most people don’t have time to shorten lots of URLs, but botmasters use them to track traffic.

If you see an account that has posted in multiple languages, it’s probably a bot for hire by a variety of clients who speak those languages or target the people who do.

No human being befriends hundreds of other human beings in a month. No months-old Twitter user has thousands of followers. Members of the same botnet befriend and follow each other automatically to fake “popularity,” which some people still equate with credibility.

Perhaps you've met people who will pass along outlandish news stories that can be debunked with 10 seconds of research. When I do, I sometimes message them privately, and ask them nicely to please try and verify before "sharing" such stories. But more often than not, I get silence (or a nasty reply) instead of an apology. You should expect the same.

I do hope you become adept at spotting bots, and at resisting the urge to share emotion-laden posts or tweets without verifying their accuracy and “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert calls the unwarranted feeling that something must be true just because it agrees with you.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below.

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Most recent comments on "How to Spot a Bot"

Posted by:

michael mclaughlin
07 Aug 2018

"Whether you believe the Russians interfered in U. S. elections or not"

Bob, in all due respect if one does not believe in Russian interference they are either a Trump supporter or bloody dumb, or both probably.

Posted by:

07 Aug 2018

Please stick to the subject manner Michael. If you continue to stick your political views in here we may soon consider your posts those of a bot.

Posted by:

Richard Alan Dengrove
07 Aug 2018

The problem is that those who take your advice are probably not the people who need it.

Posted by:

07 Aug 2018

I'd get offended too, miger.....if I was a Trump supporter or bloody dumb.

Posted by:

07 Aug 2018

If you are not a bot, prove by clicking all the comments that have nothing whatsoever to do with the topic.

Posted by:

Ann Swasey
07 Aug 2018

Thanks for posting this. One cannot be too informed. Appreciate all technical and info like this. Keep on being you!

Posted by:

James Archer
07 Aug 2018

Sounds like good advice, but you lost me by quoting Mother Jones, a red flag to credibility. They are notorious far-left progressives not known for honest, objective reporting.

Posted by:

07 Aug 2018

PLEASE stop the politics! Well, it at least lets me know who the garbage-heads are. More on the topic, if you see someone with thousands (or even several hundred) "friends" or "followers" you can, if you think about it, decide that's probably someone to avoid.

Posted by:

Bob Stromberg
07 Aug 2018

Thank you for providing useful tips, including some that I had not thought of before.

I have two emotional tugs about posts that I get excited about.

1 -- Yes! I gotta post this to my timeline (or "retweet this").

2 -- Hm. I feel good when I check out an inflammatory comment. I'll check this one out, too.

It's much less time-consuming (and embarrassing) to check things out ahead of time.

Posted by:

07 Aug 2018

A pattern often seen on Twitter is the account with an eight-digit number in the account's handle. It's been a common pattern with bot and troll accounts that seems to indicate bulk-creation from a database, whether later used for mass posting of identical messages or harassment of individuals tweeting on a given topic.
It's something of a mystery to me why Twitter doesn't allow us to report malicious bot accounts as such.

Posted by:

07 Aug 2018

I'm affraid the bots are everywhere online. Not much you can do about them, really. Media info trackers. There was a report on tv about them a while back, and they even concluded its almost impossible to avoid bots.

Posted by:

Donna Crane
07 Aug 2018

On Twitter a username with a string of numbers following it seems to be a bot clue, I've found. They are also usually fairly new accounts with few followers and require careful scrutiny of their Twitter postings.

Posted by:

Sandy jewell
08 Aug 2018

I have one friend and one cousin who are very gullible and share every WARNING that is sent to them. They never check first. I check,find out it is a scam or hoax and let them know. I'm not popular.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2018

I rarely go on Facebook and now have yet another reason to back away from the out-of-control social media outlets. I do have friends who will answer, click etc. on anything they receive whether on Facebook or in their emails. Some never learn.

Bob, please keep posts about politics off your excellent article and comment sections. We are being bombarded everywhere with those who drag politics into any and all types of threads.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2018

Thank you Bob for another informative and timely warning. I just had this rush of blood to the head which suggested keeping a "disposable" FB account to accept bots as friends and then feed them all sorts of fake stuff to mess with their bot-minds.
Then I realised that that fake stuff would probably be passed on indefinitely, so it would have to be so obviously fake (Trump wants to ban handguns) that no-one with half a brain would believe it. Then I realised millions of people would believe it.....

Posted by:

09 Aug 2018

Young people and the gullible p2p lovers should be taught that there are no friends online, and that people who send friend requests are only acquaintances which you might not like if you actually met them

Posted by:

11 Aug 2018

Social media is a social disease. Get off fakebook and all the rest of them ASAP!

Posted by:

11 Aug 2018

On Facebook, as in life, choose your friends carefully. I don't accept most friend requests because I don't want more messages coming in but I do accept those from family members (some of whom unfriend me when the see my political rants) and old friends/co-workers. I've become very friendly with a cousin whom I barely knew before, with cousins who live in Canada whom I have never and will never meet. And then there's all the posts about politics but if one doesn't like them, they don't have to get them. Nothing wrong with social media.

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