What is a social media bot and what impact does it have?

1. What exactly are social media bots?

The Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis (OCIA) defines social media bots as programs that vary in size based on function, capability, and design; and can be used on social media platforms to mimic human behavior and perform a variety of useful and malicious tasks simultaneously. These programs use artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and other programs or databases to mimic legitimate users in posting content.

Social bots essentially automate social media interactions to mimic human activity, but they perform at a scale that would be impossible for human users.

Bots can be automated or semi-automated. Automated bots operate independently based on human-set parameters, while semi-automated bots combine these parameters with some human management. This allows users to create fake social media accounts and personalities.

But not all social media bots are malicious. For example, customer service chatbots are used to answer inquiries and make sales. They can also deliver breaking news and events to the public, and even support counterterrorism.

2. Some malicious applications include:

Terrorist recruitment, propagating content to radicalize vulnerable viewers;

Online harassment and dissemination of hate speech;

Disinformation and malicious influence, spreading conspiracy theories and fake news;

Market manipulation by spreading false information about a company or industry.

3. How do malicious social media bots affect national security?

Political processes: Social media bots can influence public opinion, build mistrust between people and their governments, disrupt social processes and exacerbate geopolitical tensions.

Financial security: Misleading content can cause economic damage, costing the global economy an estimated $78B per year. This includes the costs of reputation management, stock market crackdowns, and combating disinformation.

Public health and safety: Social media bots can engage in social movements, change public opinion around global issues such as climate change, influence vaccination rates, and recruit terrorists. The European Parliament views disinformation as a human rights issue that violates privacy, democratic rights and freedom of thought.

OCIA notes that the use of social media bots - and with them, malicious bot behavior - is on the rise online in the U.S. Bots on social networks such as Twitter may account for 5-15% of users, but exact numbers are difficult to estimate. According to the New York Times, there is some debate about how important social media bots really are.

Beyond accurate usage rates, the online information ecosystem is becoming a priority for adversaries and nation states. Social media bots are central to this landscape, and their impact on national security is likely to expand and evolve in the coming years.

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