The majority of links on Twitter are shared by bots, a term for accounts that use automation in place of human decision-making. That’s according to a study released this week by the Pew Research Center that found accounts using automation serve up an estimated 66 percent of links on Twitter.
Researchers used a list of 2,315 popular websites and studied about 1.2 million tweets with links to those sites over six weeks in 2017 to come up with their results.
The Center conducted the study to better understand automation on social media — a phenomenon worth examining because technology is being wielded in unprecedented ways to shape public opinion and push political agendas.
“Fake news,” bots, and digital disinformation campaigns came to light during the 2016 U.S. presidential election but a series of studies by the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project reveals coordinated social media activity aimed at influencing public opinion is pervasive around the world.
Given these tactics, the Pew Research study might seem alarming but it’s important to remember that Twitter automation is also used in benign ways.
For example, bots exist to notify followers when new Netflix content is added and to send out alerts during emergencies. News sites (GeekWire included) will often use automation to send tweets when new stories are published. The Pew study suggests that many bots fall into this category. Researchers found that an estimated 89 percent of tweeted links to popular news aggregation sites are posted by bots.
Pew didn’t find any evidence that the bots had a liberal or conservative “political bias” in their tweeting activity, which challenges some common perceptions.
Some have voiced worry that suspected bot accounts are prolific in sharing hyper-partisan political news, either on the left or right of the ideological spectrum.
However, the Center’s analysis finds that automated Twitter accounts actually share a higher proportion of links from sites that have ideologically mixed or centrist human audiences – at least within the realm of popular news and current events sites with an orientation toward political news and issues.