Most Americans say they can’t tell social media bots from real humans, and most are convinced bots are bad, according to a new study from Pew Research Center. Only 47 percent of Americans are somewhat confident they can identify social media bots from real humans. In contrast, most Americans surveyed in a study about fake news were confident they could identify false stories.
The Pew study is an uncommon look at what the average person thinks about these automated accounts that plague social media platforms. After surveying over 4,500 adults in the US, Pew found that most people actually don’t know much about bots. Two-thirds of Americans have at least heard of social media bots, but only 16 percent say they’ve heard a lot about them, while 34 percent say they’ve never heard of them at all. The knowledgeable tend to be younger, and men are more likely than women (by 22 percentage points) to say they’ve heard of bots. Since the survey results are self-reported, there’s a chance people are overstating or understating their knowledge of bots.
Of those who have heard of bots, 80 percent say the accounts are used for bad purposes. Regardless of whether a person is a Republican or Democrat or young or old, most think that bots are bad. And the more that a person knows about social media bots, the less supportive they are of bots being used for various purposes, like activists drawing attention to topics or a political party using bots to promote candidates.
Overall, the report gives the sense that most Americans are worried and can’t do much to identify bots. Still, researchers have already come up with tools to combat bots. One of the more recent ones is an algorithm proposed by MIT Sloan academics that would distinguish bots from humans based on how they interact with other accounts. The general idea is that if an account is very active and others aren’t talking to it, it could be a bot.