A "bot" – sometimes called a "spider" or "crawler" – is a computer program that sets up a social media account and can be made to act like a human. Programmers can create them in the thousands – and design them so they can communicate with each other and coordinate actions. Curtis Houck of Media Research Center explains the automated applications can follow certain people, often celebrities or politicians – and through repetitive actions, make those individuals appear more popular than they really are.
"There's usually multiple bots with either clearly fake or seemingly real accounts that, all at one time, tweet the same thing or very similar things at entire groups of people or about a particular topic or [in the case of Twitter] a hashtag," he adds.
For example, a bot could make an issue like legalizing marijuana look much more popular than it really is. "It inflates the public debate on [social media], more specifically Twitter, to make it seem like the public or users are all of one position," Houck tells AFN.
Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas says Twitter is a potential minefield of bots, making it look like a bigger ad market than it really is, cheating Texans and violating the state's Deceptive Trade Practices Act. According to Houck, that's a legitimate concern.
"It is definitely a problem on Twitter when it comes to advertising," he begins, "because if advertisers are going to spend X amount of money on advertising and targeted ads and what they're sending it for and they're placing it on the timelines of people with entire whole swaths of fake accounts – [those advertisers are] not really getting their bang for their buck."
But the MRC spokesman says it's not just commerce that's affected: a bot can be programmed to boost certain politicians and amplify their messages. "In some cases, people [running for office] can buy bot accounts … that follow them and only a few other accounts to seemingly inflate their influence on social media," he describes.
In a recent, unscientific poll by American Family News, two-thirds of respondents defined "misinformation" as either "anything the Left doesn't agree with" or "info twisted to intentionally mislead." Based on Houck's comments, bots clearly can be agents of misinformation.