What is the actual purpose of the bots on social media?

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Are they just set up by people/companies to rack up extra followers or is there some other reason for them?

In: 8

I can only guess but…

A network of bots is needed for those companies that offer to sell likes and follows. Those accounts need to exist and maybe they also gain “authenticity” with a post history, other followers themselves, and karma.

Basically false advertisement and trying to project illusion that people enjoy your product or idea.

So like reddit has bots that companies use to upvote adds and give them awards. The idea is that people are stupid and will go “well damn, people love this product so much they gave it awards”. Now, most people are smarter than that and point out the flaws. However, there’s also a 4-D chess game here. By noticing and calling out the fake approval of the ads you have also paid more attention to it, so, they are basically still winning in their eyes.

For things like twitter or some streaming services, they use bots for fake likes and artificial promotion. Oh yeah i’m passing this bill that’s really controversial but look 500K people liked it, so clearly its good and you are wrong. Many politicians twitter account followers have been found to be 50-60% bots for said reason.

It’s all about manipulating and influencing people. Because alas, its effective. The average person isn’t that intelligent and the digital age has made that even worse.

Digital forensics investigator here, one of the other things about this whole culture is the fact that you can sell Instagram accounts, Facebook accounts and more importantly Facebook groups. (Facebook has gotten better about notifying you if a group you have subscribed to has changed their name.) When you get a friend request from a fake woman, or get pushed to like a group dedicated to cute puppies, when those pages get a certain number of likes they can be sold to advertisers. This is apart from whether they’re actually being used for scams.

TLDR: if you get a social media page with a bunch of likes you can sell it to an advertiser.

There are a lot of different types of bots, which can be used for all kind of purposes, from fun, to useful, to ridiculous, up to downright dangerous…

You have probably already encountered bots on Reddit, like the “remindme” bot, which are actually useful. There are some that automatically fix bad links or post a synnopsis of a linked Wikipedia article, etc. Also some that remind you of typical spelling mistakes, etc.

Then there are bots that just upvote everything certain users post. If many of them are used, this can make it seem as if there is a general consensus that what this user says is right. Such bots are misleading, and are typically banned for good reason (though difficult to spot, if they are done right).

The next step are bots that just pretend that they are users, and post stuff that fits into a specific narrative of the party that controls them. If there are suddenly lots of “Putin is right, Ukraine shoud just give up the fight”-posts appearing, you can be sure that this is not a sudden change of mood in the population, but that there are bots doing their work.

Of course, usually they are more suble than this: starting to stir up resentment first, without being open to their goals, but the result is the same.

tl:dr – not all bots are evil, but evil bots are out there!

Bots exist to influence people. People will accept hearsay as fact if they hear enough people repeat it. Bots appear to be people that accept something; so others follow.

They can make people appear more popular than they actually are (more followers, more mentions); people will pay attention to others that they believe to be popular / influential (and a person can become actually popular or influential just by convincing people they are). It can be used to creat “influencers”, and give a voice to those wouldn’t normal have such a platform.

Bots can take unpopular opinions and make them popular. They can make it seem as though many people have a particular opinion or point of view by pretending to be such people. Real people feel pee pressure to share the opinion, or at least accept that it’s widely held by others. People that already held that opinion, but felt that they could not express it can be made to feel that it’s widely accepted and are then emboldened to express it and act on it. It’s been used to make bigotries, violence, and extremism more mainstream.

Bots can be used to disseminate information, particularly wrong or inaccurate information. This could be used to sow doubt, influence policy, defame people, prepare people to accept other falsehoods, etc. There are entire networks devoted to using bots to sell conspiracies and “alternate facts” to receptive demographics with the objective of undermining foreign governments.

Bots sometimes go through a preparation phase of attempting to just mimic a normal user, before being used for their purpose later, to make the act more convincing.

As a notable example, while I’ve seen it less in recent months there was a trend of verified YT channels with generic simple names like “Nice” or “Snow” that would have no videos except a copy pasted “who is [channelname]?” video, where they would claim to be a former video editor as their cover. (occasionally, you’d also see a minecraft clip or two)

They would have around 100,000 subscribers each from other fake accounts, and their only future activity beyond this point would be trowling popular videos, then parroting any comment with good engagement. People then see the checkmark and upvote the comments, boom you have an vaguely legit looking account you can sell to shmucks looking to become influencers.

Of course, the best way to skip this step, if a bad actor can get away with it, is just to hijack a human’s account. Anyway, this is why you’ll see bots sometimes with no immediately apparent purpose.

What hasn’t been mentioned yet is that news sites use bots to crawl social media posts and then either report back to an author with the trending news or some will even attempt to have an AI generate the article automatically based on what was posted.

The other thing that can be done is a news site can prepare several articles about something that isn’t newsworthy, then have their army of bots flood social media in a way that gets people talking about that unnewsworthy thing. They can then keep putting out articles to entice readers because they wrote them all ahead of time.

A bot is by definition just a piece of software that automates an interaction with a system intended for human users. The features and intent of a given bot is determined by the developer and/or operator of that software. You appear to be asking a question that not only has a straightforward answer, but one which seeks to determine the motivations of particular groups; neither type of question is appropriate for ELI5.