Social network bots: Annoying spam or harmful influencers?

While we all may be aware, particularly after the recent U.S. elections, of the presence of false or automated accounts on social networking sites, their true impact is still unfolding. These accounts, also known as bots, spread misinformation which at best can pollute our feeds with false or misleading information, and at worst can significantly impact our opinions and influence world events and narratives. And despite the significant efforts of social networks to detect and address their bot problems, they still remain a serious issue.

Joining me to share his thought-provoking research and provide insight on the impact of bots on social networks is Tauhid Zaman, associate professor at Yale University. His study, “Detecting Bots and Assessing their Impact in Social Networks,” is selected for publication in the INFORMS journal Operations Research and will be published later this year.

So the three things that give the bots power is their reach, their activity, and their difference of opinion with you. The thing you can change as a social media user is their reach. So if somebody follows you on Twitter and you don’t recognize the account, don’t know the person, don’t give them a follow back. If you don’t follow the bots then they can’t reach you. And that’s probably the main thing, if you are just careful about who you follow, the bots are essentially just shouting in the wilderness and they have no impact.

Interviewed this episode:

Tauhid Zaman

Yale University

Tauhid is an Associate Professor of Operations Management at the Yale School of Management. He received his BS, MEng, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT.

His research focuses on solving operational problems involving social network data using probabilistic models, network algorithms, and modern statistical methods.  Some of the topics he studies in the social networks space include combating online extremists and assessing the impact of bots.

His broader interests cover data driven approaches to investing in startup companies, algorithmic sports betting, and biometric data.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Wired, Mashable, the LA Times, and Time Magazine.