The Twitter Bot Uprising

Ben Farrell


Twitter is a massively successful social media platform. It boasts hundreds of millions of users including celebrities like Brad Pitt and Donald Trump. It has massive potential for reaching audiences and growing your brand awareness. Twitter currently has 319 million active users! That’s a lot of users! However, what if I told you that some of those ‘users’ were actually bots and not real people? Software programs designed to tweet and retweet based on algorithms. I found this surprising. But, what if I told you it’s not a few but that 15% of twitter accounts are bots! That means that about 48 million ‘users’ aren’t real people!

Instead, they’re software set up to target and infiltrate groups and inflate digital metrics through their fake retweets and more.

In 2014 Twitter estimated that 5% of their users were in fact bots. That’s 13.6 million users at the time. However, studies suggested that there may have been many more bots than Twitter ever estimated. This means that bots have either; continued to grow by 10% on the platform or, as we suspected, the initial estimates were wrong.

In the recent US presidential election, a UK study stated that they discovered huge, inter-connected bot networks, the largest of which had half a million accounts. These bots became the focus during the election with claims that Trump was using such networks to retweet pro-Trump sentiment and therefore gaining a bigger voice than his opponent Hillary Clinton.

In fact, studies showed that pro-Trump content outnumbered pro-Clinton sentiment 7 to 1 and more than a third of pro-Trump tweets were generated by bots as opposed to one fifth of bots responsible for pro-Clinton tweets. So, either the bots are trump supporters or were programmed as such! Maybe Clinton just needed to hire more bots!

It’s hard to say what impact this actually had on voters but we can definitely say that there was a lot of automated bot driven tweets going on.

Another item in the election news was that of ‘fake news’ sites with fake stories spreading like wildfire across social media platforms including Twitter. The advantage and disadvantage of social media is that anyone can publish anything. So, it becomes difficult to discern what is real journalism versus propaganda. Facebook recently culled several thousand of its pages that it determined as fake news in a crackdown following the election and controversy surrounding such sites. So, with bots and fake news, what can we really trust on social media? What does all this say about Twitter? Does it discredit the authenticity of the platform or not?

Anyone can create a follow-back bot or even a bot that follows people with certain keywords in their bio. But, really, what’s the point? All you’re doing is boosting vanity metrics. It’s fine to have thousands of followers but that means nothing if none of them ever become paying customers. Having a much smaller but engaged audience is much more valuable than an arbitrary number of followers that may be large but is essentially shallow.

I guess for Twitter, the biggest problem is that the discovery of bots brings their ‘active user’ estimates into question which is something they’ve struggled with for years now. The answer to that question of how many users Twitter has is important not just for Twitter but for any business that uses the platform to market their product and services. Audience is everything where social media is concerned and no one wants to target (or pay for) bots as part of their audience. The prevalence of bots casts a dark cloud of doubt over all numbers on Twitter and have people questioning the effectiveness of marketing on the platform with some people even remarking that ‘Twitter is dead’ – Don’t tell Donald Trump!

Here are some suggestions to clean your data and get rid of fake audiences:

  • Use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to setup keyword monitoring and get more of an idea of how your topics are being discussed on Twitter. Make sure you set up alerts for new comments that are relevant. Once you better understand how topics are being discussed and get a feel for the sentiment, it becomes obvious which tweets are real versus bot driven.
  • Use followerwonk to understand the demographics of your audience. Understand their age, where they’re from, how engaged they are and more. If from this you believe you have a lot of fake followers, remove them.

There is definitely a lure to vanity metrics and it feels nice to see you have a lot of followers. We get stuck in a mindset that the more followers the more popular you must be a look with envy upon Twitter users with more followers than us. Whilst this may look good on the surface, it doesn’t take long for someone to dig down beyond the numbers and find out that your followers aren’t at all engaged in your content. So, it’s important to go for quality rather than quantity. There’s really no point in competing on how many followers you have. It doesn’t mean anything if they’re not potential customers let alone real people.

Once you clean your data, you’ll get a much better idea of your true engagement and understand more about your audience, their behaviour and their responsiveness. So, focus on a smaller, quality engaged audience of potential customers and hit them with quality content that adds value. If you focus on quality as your main objective then, with patience, the numbers will follow naturally. Before you know it, you’ll have an audience of thousands but the difference will be that your audience will be 1000 engaged people who love and share your content as opposed to sheer numbers.  So, have patience, produce top class engaging content then watch the numbers roll in organically.