Social Media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google Hangout, YouTube, Foursquare, blogs, forums, and virtual games is being invaded by Social Robots (called “bots that are programmed to appear as your real friend on social media) in order to see what you type, understand how you feel, know what you buy, analyze messages, promote certain brands to you, record your data and interactions, popularize topics and people, imitate people and brands, and influence behavior. Bots are website software applications that run a set of automated tasks over the internet. Bots operate in phases. First they establish a believable network to hide their artificial appearance. Second, they befriend people in networks. Third, they solicit human users. Finally they explore their new found network by making friends with other friends of friends and harvesting the data of interest.

With so many people interacting on social media bots are of concern. Bots are very powerful virtual tools that are used to affect the choices that we make, how we respond, what and where we shop, what we see, what we believe and where we go. Social bots take that information and use it in marketing, research, social media, and in the development of fake friends.

Social bots take on several functions such as those listed below:

  • Increase or decrease your likes, dislikes, fans, followers, and friends
  • Analyze weak points in programs that can be attacked
  • Send out cyber attacks
  • Determine weak data breaches
  • Gather personal information such as names, numbers, email addresses, etc.
  • Spread negative or positive messages about products, people, companies, policies.
  • Improve awareness about a topic
  • Determine your location based on your IP Address
  • Steal information
  • Drive attention to brands
  • Understand the users state of mind
  • Manipulate voting
  • Locate you
  • Target and expand friends and network
  • Increase the number of followers
  • Gather and report data about you
  • Change social behavior

Social bots are used for good and not so good purposes. On the one hand they can influence campaign outcomes by delivering a constant flow of key messages to voters. The key messages may cause you the consumer to vote for a certain political party or candidate. Social bots may also be used to create fake friends who you think are real people liking your information but in reality they are learning about who your friends are, what they like, and targeting them for key messages that promote or decrease sales of a particular product. A bot called @hackernewsbot, is a good bot because it provides the user with the latest update on Hacker News. Overall, being aware of their existence is a first step to addressing bots that may be harmful to your profile, business, or network of friends. As consumers it is urgent that we know whom we are communicating with and what is taking place with the information that we share with our Friends.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) works on antibot initiatives and codes that can be used to identify bots. This is a new and ongoing process that produces recommendations for ISP providers to consider. As of today best practices and guidelines are under development and research on this topic is ongoing. In addition, the FCC created a set of Anti-Bot Code of Conduct (ABC’s) for Internet Services Providers that is Voluntary. They are currently listed on the FCC website along with a list of companies (showing less than 10 ISP Service Providers) that have adopted the guidelines on a voluntary basis.

There are things that you can do to avoid some bots and limit the information bots take from you on social media:

  1. Don’t accept friends from people who you don’t know (especially on your personal page)
  2. Don’t accept friends without faces. A friend without a face may simply be a bot.
  3. Develop a personal and a business page and separate the personal from the business information.
  4. Use systems like Botornot to determine if your friend is real or not.
  5. Notice when the tweets or messages appear on social media. Bots often send out messages around the same time. Real people send out messages sporadically.
  6. Bots follow a large number of groups but have fewer followings.
  7. View how bots follow and unfollow you within 24 hours. They follow you hoping that you will follow them and then they unfollow you in 24 hours. If someone follows you, wait 3-4 days to follow back.
  8. Check to see who else has your profile name or similar name. It may be a bot posing to be you to seek data.
  9. Beware of accepted friend requests that you never sent.
  10. Check to see how quick friend requests are accepted. If your friend request is accepted in seconds from when you sent it, it may be a bot accepting your friend request. This isn’t always a bot, some people have quick fingers and religiously follow social media.
  11. Check the API on Facebook for example. People tweet from the web, or mobile, or Tweetdeck. You will see that in your timeline on Facebook. If it says “from API” there is a pretty solid sign they have at least automated the tweeting and chances are you are dealing with a bot.
  12. Limits posts to your timeline to a select group who you know. Don’t let anyone post to your timeline.
  13. Send the bot a complicated message; bots don’t usually answer complicated questions and they don’t usually answer back. Few bots run by software answer back.
  14. View Photos to see how many are listed. Bots dont usually have tons of photos. They may have fewer than 5.
  15. Watch out for the babe factor-photo that looks great but it may be a bot used to simply obtain your friendship and get into your network.
  16. Lastly, don’t just use social media, use the internet to learn about social media and the internet. Start researching topics on your own and become savy about the world in which you operate. Bots will only get smarter with the information that you provide them.

From 2012 to 2013, Incapsula, a website security firm found that bot traffic went from consisting of 51 percent to 61.5 percent of all Internet traffic, a 10.5-percent increase. Thirty-one percent of those bots are malicious, according to data from the report. Since bots are growing day to day it is very important to know that they exist and to take steps to mitigate the damage that they can do.