LOS ANGELES (CN) – If you’ve participated in elections in the last two years and stayed engaged politically through social media, you’ve likely come across a pesky automation tool that two-thirds of Americans believe is maliciously used to generate political influence.
Social media bots – automated online tools that can post content and interact with users without any human involvement – have been widely condemned by Congress and investigated by social media sites for their role in spreading misinformation and sowing political discord.
Of the 66 percent of Americans who said they’ve heard about social media bots, 80 percent said they believe the bots are used for mischievous activities, according to a Pew Research Center poll published Monday.
Americans with a college degree and Democrat-leaning individuals are more likely to have heard about bots, at 78 percent and 72 percent, respectively. The concern over malicious bot activity held true across party lines, however.
This past July, House Republicans criticized the major social media tech giants for what they believe is an unfair filtering out of conservative viewpoints from social media feeds. Some lawmakers suggested increased government regulation of the social media giants.
A previous Pew study of more than 100,000 tweeted links to 50 popular news websites found 59 percent of those shared links were suspected to be from bots.
Monday’s poll – which surveyed 4,581 U.S. adults between July 30 and August 12 – also found that among those who’ve heard about social media bots, only 47 percent are very or somewhat confident they could identify them.
Eighty-one percent of those polled said they believe a fair amount of news people get from social media comes from accounts that post automated content. This meshes with a study by Twitter which estimated that 1.4 million users engaged with Russian-generated propaganda through postings on its platform.
Another 66 percent of Americans say they believe social media bots negatively affect the way already well-informed Americans think about current affairs.
The poll found that despite overwhelming disapproval of social media bots, some believe there is room for debate about potentially positive applications of the online tools.
Of those who’ve heard about bots, 11 percent say they believe they can be used for positive purposes. Seventy-eight percent say they support the government using social media bots to post automated updates about natural disasters and other public health emergencies.
But there is evidence that false public health information has already been spread by malicious users.
A study this past summer by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland found that among thousands of tweets about vaccines posted between 2014 and 2017, 93 percent came from accounts that could not be determined to be either human users or bots.
And the conversation about social media bots hasn’t reached all areas of the public sphere. Only 16 percent of people say they’ve heard “a lot” about social media bots, while roughly a third of the public claims to have heard nothing at all about them.
The gap in awareness about bots can be understood along age and gender breakdowns in the poll. About three-quarters of Americans ages 18 to 49 say they’ve heard “a lot or some” about bots.
The poll also found that as people learn more about the application of social media bots in the public sphere, they are less likely to support issue-based organizations and political parties that use bots to affect people’s opinions about their issues or candidates.