Malicious social bots are targeting brands, too

Social bots create misinformation, fabricate online reviews and spread false news about political candidates, maliciously attempting to control and manipulate public sentiments, and disrupt the democratic process. But are social bots “only” disrupting political life, or are they having an impact on brands, too? And, if so, what’s the consequence of that?

Xia Liu investigated social media bots Twitter activity, and published the findings in the Journal fo Services Marketing, in a paper entitled “A big data approach to examining social bots on Twitter”.

Liu collected tweets explicitly tagging a company account, from a sample 24 large companies. After separating the user generated messages from those tweets posted by the firms themselves, Liu found that social media bots were responsible for around one-third of the user generated tweets (bots represented around one-sixth of the accounts in the study’s sample).

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Subsequently, the researcher examined the sentiment expressed in the user generated tweets, as well as their virality. The results show that messages posted by social bots are:

  • More likely to be negative (and less likely to be positive) than those posted by other users (and less likely to be positive)
  • Significantly more like to go viral than messages posted by other users

Sentiment analysis is a thriving industry, as firms seek to mine social media content to understand customer satisfaction and brand performance, and to minimise social media crises. The difference in sentiment valence between the two groups identified by Liu means that social bots distort the “voice of the customer”, and give marketers a misleading view of customer sentiment. Thus, they may be making important decisions based on biased market views. Moreover, as many customers seek other customers’ views of the product, this means that social bots’ tweets can negatively influence customers’ evaluation of the product or experience. 

In addition, the finding that social bots’ messages are significantly more likely to go viral than other users’ messages, means that their messages are succeeding in attracting attention, and are leading social media users to amplify brand-related misinformation. This not only distorts market insight and customer decision making (as discussed in the previous paragraph), but could even have impact in terms of these firms’ stock market performance.

A worrying finding, indeed – both for the firms that may be targeted by malicious bot campaigns, and the consumers who may be fooled by these bots. Yet another reason for social media platforms to take responsibility (or being forced to take responsibility) for what’s happening on their platforms?!

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