We’ve all seen it – fake social media accounts blasting blatant disinformation and propaganda. Your uncle Bill retweets them and your cousin Sally shares their links on Facebook, but they don’t know any better, right? Surely you, a savvy consumer of social media, can navigate this novel landscape of algorithms and disinformation. After all, you grew up with Instagram and Twitter, you’re educated, you can spot the fakes…right? Maybe not. The networks of so-called ‘bots’ on social media are pervasive and sophisticated, designed to target any type of consumer and directly promote a message that consumers will identify with. The technology is not inherently evil, it’s the reason you found that great outfit you’re wearing to that concert it told you about. That doesn’t seem all too bad. The trouble is this same technology can be coopted to deliver more than a convenient shopping experience.
Social media bots play a central role in social and political discourse around the world. Most likely, there is a good chance your own beliefs have been altered by bots and their activity without your knowledge. To understand how bots are attacking your subconscious, one must first understand how they work. Social media bots simulate real human users across various platforms. They will adopt the personality and appearance of the target audience. In the political space, bots often pose as activists or marginalized groups that represent a certain political belief or agenda to ingratiate themselves with that community. Once this role is assumed, the bots can systematically push narratives through their posts and shared content. Beyond inventing their own personas to emulate what one may perceive as a trusted source, bots have also been seen pretending to be real people in order to legitimize their messaging. gain, you may be thinking to yourself ‘but these fakes are easy to spot!’ However, that doesn’t stop their efficacy. If 10,000 fake accounts promote the same disinformation, each account may only need to fool one social media user into sharing a link and suddenly it’s a trending topic. If this is targeted correctly, social media algorithms will promotewhatever topic is receiving the highest volume of traffic and push it to a broader base of consumers. As a message spreads across social media it can find its way to legitimate media outlets and, in turn, to millions of consumers who trust the information they are receiving.
The implications of this reality within the political sphere are vast. If a targeted network of fake accounts able to create and disseminate disinformation on social media and mainstream media platforms they are able to alter the political discourse. Honest political discourse is a pillar of democracy and debate is a cornerstone of the democratic process as a vital tool used to persuade voters on political issues and affiliation. Strong debate and discourse is the method through which we formulate our political ideology. Now, we struggle to agree on fact itself as misinformation and disinformation have become deeply rooted within various political ideologies. At no time in history has disinformation been so easily spread and so readily consumed. The social media bubbles we have encased ourselves in are fertile breeding grounds for the spread of ‘fake news’ that affirms and radicalizes our existing ideologies. Now that a majority of Americans consume news from social media the audience and implications of fake news have never been so numerous. The extent of social media news consumption is so vast that manipulation of that news has real-world effects and may even share a role in altering the outcome of democratically held elections.
What is to be done about this clear and ever-growing threat to the sanctity of our democratic process? Many argue social media corporations must bear the burden of erasing these fake accounts from their platforms and enforce stricter rules against the spread of false information. Twitter is reportedly erasing ten accounts a second but is still plagued with thousands upon thousands of active bot accounts. Warning labels and fact-checking icons have found their way onto many platformswhile updated terms of service redefine what information is permissible on certain platforms. However, it cannot all be policed. Social media is, after all, a medium for debate and the spread of ideas. Too much restriction may do as much harm as it does good. There is one thing that every social media user can do to help solve this epidemic of fake accounts – educate themselves on the signs of malicious behavior on social media. There are many resources online that are a perfect first step in this education process, one of which can be found here. Once you have taken these vital first steps, test your knowledge with the Spot the Troll quiz and begin using these tools to identify and avoid fake accounts online. Social media is arguably the most important medium for the exchange of social and political discourse and ideas, sobeing able to separate the real users from the fake ones will serve every user well as they navigate the space and contribute to debate and discussion. We can all play a role in the neutralization of bot accounts and their incursions into our most closely held beliefs.