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The Bot Epidemic

Christopher Frawley Christopher Frawley
25th November 2020
The Bot Epidemic

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.


The internet has asserted its dominant presence in the cultural, social, and political spheres of societies across the world. It is so influential that it’s likely that more people than not (with regular internet access) spend at least some time online every single day.

In theory, the internet is the great equalizer: it gives everyone a voice and the opportunity to expand their influence through popular merit. However, what happens when the platforms that have such a tangible influence on real life are being deliberately manipulated to service an agenda? A prominent concern is thus presented: bots.

What exactly is a “bot?”

To put it simply, bots are automated software programs designed to accomplish specific tasks online in spaces made for human interaction. The advantage of using these bots is that they are far more efficient than human users at accomplishing whatever job their creators set them to. They can perform the same actions over and over again, never tiring, never needing to be paid or having to rest.

These programs can be used for anything: from the relatively innocent function of simulating website traffic, to the very dangerous act of stealing credential information like usernames and passwords. With so much banking and monetary activity happening online these days, the idea of a piece of software hacking into your account is very scary to say the least.

An Incredible Influx

You may be thinking that this probably affects some people once in a while, but how bad could it be? The answer: far worse than you might believe. Specific numbers vary from year-to-year, but all major sources report that the amount of the internet-using bots is enormous. A report from Imperva showed that just over half of internet traffic consisted of bots, both “good” (relatively innocent) and “bad” (actively malicious). A report for 2019 showed that the presence of bots had decreased to 36.2% of internet traffic, but that the percentage of “bad” bots had increased. Despite the belief of many users and website owners that bots come from countries such as Russia and China, the vast majority of “bad” bots originate from the United States.

Bots on Social Media

While the idea of bots hacking into bank accounts is certainly disturbing, there is another insidious practice being conducted: bots influencing social media. This phenomenon came to the attention of the greater public after the 2016 United States election, when it was discovered that thousands of Twitter accounts were actually Russian bots being used to spread misinformation and propaganda in order to influence voters. These sophisticated bots imitated Twitter users in order to create posts, or further spread existing messages through retweeting. Although bots were used to further the respective agendas of both major political parties in the U.S., the majority of these bots were used to smear Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton while promoting Republican candidate Donald Trump. The extent to which these bots tangibly affected the presidential election is hard to measure, but it is clear that the army of bots were being used to specifically target swing-states where the election would be won or lost.

It is worth noting that these bots (a synchronized group of which is called a “botnet”) were not exclusively used in the United States; they moved from place to place like a swarm of locusts. Elections in France and Germany were also targeted during the following year by the very same bots.

Artificial Intelligence, Real Consequences

The amount of bots on a social media platform is difficult to gauge, as new ones are being sent out as old ones are taken down. Further complicating the issue is the existence of “cyborgs,” accounts made by humans that also use bots to artificially increase the rate at which they can create and spread information (or misinformation).

In addition to blatantly promoting one political candidate over another, bots have also been used to reinforce hate speech and xenophobia. The idea is that if a message already appears to be popular, homophily will encourage real users to jump on-board where they otherwise may not have. Interestingly, bots have also been used as an automated counter to hate speech on platforms such as Reddit. There is essentially an indirect conflict of bot-warfare occurring across platforms.

Bot activity noticeably increased during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. One study concluded that between 45 and 60% of twitter accounts discussing the virus were bots or cyborgs, and that they have been used to circulate misinformation, conspiracy theories, and demands to reopen the country. However, the exact figure of bots talking about the virus on Twitter has been questioned due to a lack of sufficient evidence and the difficulties involved in identifying bots. Algorithms designed to detect bots have come under criticism due to flagging behavior which it deems atypical and thus suspicious, when in reality it may be just that: atypical, but human, behavior.

Despite the perhaps questionable methods used to detect infiltrative programs, even a significantly reduced number of bots or cyborgs than the projected amount could wreak havoc. Instances such as this demonstrates the potential danger that maliciously-used bots represent, as the misinformation spread by them can have deadly ramifications.

What Can Be Done About Bots?

While the malicious activity conducted by bots is often a violation of the user rules of a social media platform, the bots themselves are not illegal. Obviously, this complicates things quite a bit. As previously mentioned, relying on algorithms to find bots and cyborgs is not always as simple as it may sound. Not to mention the fact that as the methodology used to detect bots becomes more sophisticated, so do the bots themselves.


The prevalence of bots and cyborgs perhaps speaks to a larger phenomenon: the increasing value of social media as THE forum of cultural discourse. Once upon a time the bully pulpit was a reserved privilege afforded to only a few; the Twitter pulpit is available 24/7, and anyone can make use of it for good or ill will (depending on your point of view). Social media is where hearts and minds are persuaded, where elections may be won or lost, and where the future of entire societies may be indirectly decided. It is a powerfully influential tool, one that must be viewed and treated cautiously. Be careful out there and remember: don’t take everything you see online at face value, since you might just be getting duped by a computer program.