what is a bot on Twitter? In the strictest sense of the term, it’s any account that’s automated — meaning they are controlled by a computer script rather than a person. Many bots are benign or even useful: think of poetry bot accounts that will tweet you haikus or bots that alert people about earthquakes. But they can be problematic when a person or a group uses a large number of them to influence political conversations or to spread misinformation.
“[Bots] have the potential to seriously distort any debate,” said Atlantic Council fellow Ben Nimmo, who has researched bot armies for years and who wrote a guide to spotting bots for the Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFRL). “They can make a group of six people look like a group of 46,000 people.”
There’s no surefire way to spot whether an account is a bot. But there are a number of different ways to look at Twitter accounts — mostly to determine whether their behavior resembles that of a human — that may help us gain a better understanding of the universe of automated user accounts. In short, bots tend to tweet more and in bursts, have automated or copied features in their profiles, and retweet a lot.
BuzzFeed News did a comparison between one of its own human editors’ Twitter data and the data of several accounts with bot-like activity to highlight their differences in personas and behavior.
BuzzFeed News looked at the Twitter data from Tom Namako, an editor on the Breaking News team with a very high — near bot-level! (scary, Tom) — level of activity and data from Twitter handles identified as automated accounts by the DFRL. (We also chose Tom to avoid using accounts that may seem overtly political, since the conversation around bots is, now, just that.)