Invasion of the PR-bots

There’s no doubt that the rise of social media has been important to public relations. We know that consumers like having an open forum for public conversation between regular people and that they generally trust those conversations more than advertising and other commercial conversations. However, with the rise of social media, we have seen an incredible — and largely invisible — rise of something else: public relations related bots that pretend to be regular people. Because they were programmed to try to influence public opinion, just like good public relations practitioners, we like to call them PR-bots.

Bots are a software application that run automated tasks over the internet designed to mimic the behavior of human beings. Bots can be programmed, for instance, to run searches on websites. bot-like algorithms have been around since the earliest days of computers. One of the most popular versions of bots is a chatbot, an algorithm designed to be able to hold a human-like conversation. Although historically there have been a number of bots designed to amuse and delight people, such as the automated psychotherapist ELIZA, bots have recently become serious business. And also a serious nuisance.

How important are bots to you and your business? Bots are so new that facts about their presence and influence in public communication is still only filtering in. A recent industry study estimated that 52% of all web traffic is composed of bots. The same study found that 56% of those bots could be considered harmful — such as bots designed to attack and bring down websites. And another recent study conducted by our colleagues at USC estimated that up to 15% of all Twitter accounts are actually bots, rather than real people. That means that nearly 48 million Twitter accounts could be bots. What’s even scarier is that bots never rest. Although they might only represent 15% of profiles, they may account for a disproportionately large amount of Twitter’s traffic. And by all accounts, their activity is growing.  

In 2014, a penny stock social media tech company with no revenue, one employee and a valuation of about $2 million, conducted a little experiment to raise their stock price using the power of PR-bots. The company, named Cynk, used bots to tweet out positive information. Automated programs picked up on the positive word-of-mouth and then drove its value up to $5 billion — a 25,000 percent increase. Discovering such subterfuge is a real challenge because verifying the identity of account holders can be extremely difficult.

As the 2016 U.S. election showed, bots now play a serious and ongoing role in American politics. Newsweek reported a recent audit of the 45th president’s Twitter account found that 49% of his Twitter followers, over 15 million “people,” are actually not people at all: They are bots.

The political PR-bot invasion isn’t limited to America either. A recent Oxford study found that bots accounted for 45% of all Twitter account activity in Russia and the Ukraine. In Poland, a small number of accounts control about 20% of all political discussions. China has used a combination of bots and people to perform social media attacks on Taiwan’s president. Bots have been used to rally the public and attack public figures in Brazil and Venezuela. In total, Oxford’s researchers found 29 countries where PR-bots were used for political propaganda purposes.

My USC public relations department colleague Aimei Yang and I are investigating how PR-bots affect public discourse about brands. We are examining what impact PR-bots have on consumer conversations. We wonder if PR-bots can actually become influencers, introduce new elements or change the discussion. With increasing research, we will grow our understanding about these important new players on the social media scene: bots who can inform and misinform, persuade and argue, influence and cajole, and forever change the face of public conversation.

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