Twitter Bots: The Complete Beginner’s Guide


Navigating social media is hard enough without having to worry about fake accounts and fraudulent followers. So when the New York Times released an article titled Battling Fake Accounts, Twitter to Slash Millions of Followers earlier this month, many people were confused by what exactly was going on on the social media platform. And they asked the bigger question: what are Twitter bots?

Twitter bots emerged as a mainstream talking point during the 2016 American Presidential Election, when Russia was blamed for setting up thousands of bots to influence voters. Two years later and the “bot problem” continues to grow, with social media platforms recognizing and reacting to this very real threat. 

But what exactly is a Twitter bot? How do they affect the Internet? And why should small businesses even care? 

For this weekend’s Article Review, we didn’t want to just examine the NYT’s post on Twitter bot suspension; rather, we wanted to look at the bigger picture by talking about what it all really means and how it can affect your social media experiences. So, to #makesocialsimple, we put together this handy Twitter bot Guide.

What is a Bot?

A bot (think: Internet robot) is basically a computer program that runs automated tasks. Bot are programmed to do things faster than humans, so they can collect and distribute information at a higher efficiency.

Are All Bots Bad?

No. Bots are essentially a computer program, without any moral compass; it is the programmer that determines what they are used for. Right now it’s easy to think of bad bots, as that’s all we’re hearing about. But Siri on your phone or websites that use Chatbots (those online help popups websites use to answer customer questions) are examples of the helpful bots we use every day.

Twitter bot on a bright orange backdrop

What Do Bad Bots Do?

A wide variety of things. From creating and spamming propaganda, like in the American election, to stealing identities, as outlined in the NYT article:

Tens of thousands of automated accounts were created by stealing profile information from real users, including minors. One such victim, a teenager named Jessica Rychly, had her account information — including her profile photo, biographical information and location — copied and pasted onto a fake account that retweeted cryptocurrency advertisements and graphic pornography.

Because of their programming, bots can do things much faster and without breaks, compared to actual people. And because it’s bots that are doing the “work” (hacking, posting, coding), the person who initially set up the bot can feel one step removed. 

(Note: this is typically different from a troll, who is usually a real person, hiding behind an online moniker).

How do Bots Affect Small Businesses Online?

When bots start following your social media accounts, they begin to inflate your follower numbers. Sure, it may look like you have dozens, even hundreds, more followers, but the increase actually hurts your impressions; follower to interaction ratio will drop significantly, distorting real impressions and analytics that would help your business. 

Some users “buy followers” (when you actually purchase followers to help bump up your number), most of which turn out to be bots. These are not true followers and again, not only will they hurt your impressions, but they also won’t help you grow your business and they won’t actually be driving anyone to your website or content. 

Additionally, and not covered in the article, bots often target small business to hack and steal security information. According to a recent article on Time:

Surprisingly, smaller websites are more vulnerable to bots than larger ones. Hackers target them more often in order to get usernames, passwords, and other credentials because these sites are less secure.”They don’t really care about actually stealing the money from small businesses,” says [Distil Network’s CEO Rami] Essaid. “They care about stealing the information, because at the end of the day, people use the same usernames and passwords all over the place.

However, these targets are more website-specific than social-media-specific. Knowing how to protect yourself from Twitter bots is our first goal.

How do I Stop Twitter Bots?

Twitter bots are pretty easy to spot if you’re looking at every one of your individual followers. Their accounts won’t offer any personal information (usually just links or retweets) and names, bios, and pictures will look phony. For the most part, trust your gut; if you don’t think an account is real, it’s probably not. 

Reporting and blocking helps in a small way to stop Twitter bots, but the good news is that Twitter is starting to beef up their security and scrutiny of fake accounts. As are advertisers, who are being more conscious with working with people who buy followers. 

The social media landscape is always changing, growing, and developing. Laws and policies are just playing catch up to protect the users. As Clavis, we are constantly reading and educating ourselves on how current web topics can affect our clients and our clients’ clients. If you have any questions or want to discuss Twitter bots more, please get in touch with us!

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