Twitter bots may not be as influential as you think

Disinformation and misinformation is rampant online, and bots—especially those operating on social media—catch a lot of the blame. But bots may not be as much of a problem as they are often made out to be.

his graphic represents the classification of Twitter accounts in the study, top chart reads “Yellow Vests Protests,” bottom chart reads “Catalan Referendum”
This graphic represents the classification of Twitter accounts in the study. Media accounts amount to less than 1% of all users engaged in communication around the two contentious mobilizations; about 4 in 10 accounts are classified as unverified bots; and about 6 in 10 are classified as human. (Image: Annenberg School for Communication)

A new study from Annenberg School for Communication’s Sandra González-Bailón found that verified media accounts are more central in the spread of information on Twitter than bots—even though they amount to a much smaller fraction of all accounts active. The study, “Bots are Less Central than Verified Accounts during Contentious Political Events,” was published PNAS.

“Online networks are an important channel for the distribution of news,” says González-Bailón, “so we wanted to analyze how human, bot, and media accounts interact in the coverage of contentious political events, such as demonstrations, strikes, or acts of civil disobedience.”

González-Bailón and her co-author, Manlio de Domenico of the Center for Information and Communication Technology at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Italy, collected and analyzed tweets from hundreds of thousands of unique accounts during two events: the 2018 Gilets Jaunes (or Yellow Vests) movement in France, and the 2017 Catalan referendum for independence from Spain. They compared the Twitter data to web-tracking data, including the audience reach of news sites in France and Spain, from the same time frame.

Their findings suggest that verified media accounts—including those of news organizations, journalists, and public figures—are much more likely to receive retweets than bots or human accounts. And while certain news outlets were less popular on Twitter than on the web, they found no evidence to suggest that bots caused this discrepancy.

González-Bailón cautions that additional research is necessary to identify other possible mechanisms of bot influence.

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.