Internet use has become almost synonymous with the use of social media platforms, with many users relying on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as their main channels to catch up on current affairs, make purchasing decisions, and find entertainment. Even so, the social media landscape has increasingly become a divisive one, and one where threats abound.
Despite what users may think, social media platforms do more than just collate and deliver content from users to their followers. Every platform has its own specific “algorithm” that curates what users see on their feed based on “likes,” which effectively operate as votes. The more that people interact with a post, positively or negatively, the more that post will be highlighted to other users.
It is for this reason that extreme content, including slander and sensationalist lies, are rapidly spread across each platform.
Another issue with social media algorithms, however, is the nature of the “voting.” While boosting exposure of posts based on user engagement may seem fair at the outset, no social media platform is immune to the scourge of computer accounts, or “bots,” that plague the internet. Worse still, these bots are never neutral; they tend to be controlled by hackers, with unknown intentions and agenda. For example, nearly half of Twitter accounts discussing the COVID-19 epidemic are bots.
The quality of bot disguises vary. Many have no profile photo, a non-existent or nonsensical bio, and “like” and comment in clear non-human patterns. Others, however, are more sinister: an account claiming to be run by an “All-American patriotic army wife” from a southern state could be a prolific debater on immigration and jobs in the English language, but with a posting history that clearly shows the use of Ukrainian.
Bot accounts such as these are characterized by researchers as “sock puppets,” indicating a hidden hand that speaks via an alternative identity. Sometimes, it can be easy enough to ascertain whether a social media user is a real person or a sock puppet, but often even the most seasoned researchers can be fooled.
Take, for example, an account once run by a “Jenna Abrams.” At one point, her Twitter handle had more than 70,000 followers, and her conservative blog posts were widely shared with enthusiasm by thousands online. In 2017, she even managed to get a fake news story shared by mainstream news media. As it turned out, however, there was no Jenna Abrams: her Twitter handle was included on a list of accounts connected to Russian intelligence that was eventually turned over by Twitter to Congressional investigators.
These bot accounts exist for a range of reasons, not least being the sowing of distrust and division. While social media platforms have made some attempt at cracking down on the issue, such as labelling COVID-19 fake news when it appears on Twitter, the onus is still on human users to learn how to distinguish between real and fake accounts on social media.
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