Social bots are a current phenomenon in social media and are increasingly used to influence users of social platforms.
- How are social bots used to manipulate public opinion on social networks?
- What influencing strategies do exist?
- What are the consequences for corporate communications?
The influence of bots on DAX 30 companies
In a political context, social bots play a dubious role in shaping the discourse on social networks. But what about the corporate world? To anwser this question, we examined the occurrence of social bots in connection with the top German corporations listed in the German stock index DAX.
The impact of bots on the social media coverage of Germany’s top 30 companies was analyzed on the social platforms Twitter, Youtube and Facebook.
- For Twitter, all tweets that either used # hashtags, @mentions or “normal” mentions associated with the DAX 30 companies were analyzed.
- Via Facebook the pages of the DAX companies as well as postings by companies and visitors were tracked.
- On YouTube the channels of the DAX 30 companies, the videos on these channels, and the comments posted about these videos were explored.
Strategies of social bots trying to exert influence
We identified four main bot strategies which are employed to try and influence public discussions on social media.
Strategy 1: Promoting their own products or content
The first strategy describes accounts that try to promote their own products, services or content on Twitter – often extensions or additions to products and services of other companies. This is why they refer in their tweets to other companies to gain attention.
Strategy 2: Promoting or selling products of other companies
The second strategy bears resemblance to the first. However, one important difference here is that the accounts promote or sell products produced by other companies, rather than those produced by the account holders themselves.
Strategy 3: Hijacking content – using (unrelated) topics by others to spread their own messages
Bot creators can also try to exploit a hot or popular topic to promote their own offerings and hope for a spillover effect. They can thus use popular hashtags that might only be loosely related to their own business in order to garner more attention.
Strategy 4: Harming companies and brands
Accounts pursuing this strategy are intended to use their reach on Twitter to spread messages that may harm other companies. This harm may take many different forms, e.g. claims of poor product quality, or publicly shaming companies for their conduct. When confronted with false claims, companies can resort to legal action.
How harmful are social bots for companies?
- Twitter seems to be the platform most vulnerable to social bots, even though bot activities are very rare and not (yet) trying to harm other corporations or competitors. In most cases, the aim behind the bots was to boost their sales, be it of their own products or brands they resold.
- Social bots in the business world do not seem to be as active as in the political domain.
- In contrast to Twitter, no bot activities were detected on Facebook or YouTube.
- While social bots have the potential to harm companies, they currently pose no imminent threat. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be malicious intent on a large scale.
Learnings and consequences for other companies
- Nevertheless, social bots have the potential to harm companies. They might either overshadow companies’ communication with their own messages or could potentially harm companies by maligning others.
- As a consequence, companies should monitor the social media conversations on topics related to them or their products, even if not directly about them.
- The first step to counter possible negative campaigns is to inform the network operator (e.g. Twitter) and demand the messages to be deleted. Should these claims be false, the operator is obliged to react without delay.
- Companies must also be prepared for crisis communication and should be able to issue statements acknowledging and debunking false claims.
- However, it should be remembered that negative claims spread much faster on social networks than denials
- The research project was headed by Prof. Stefan Stieglitz and Florian Brachten (University of Duisburg–Essen) from 2018 to 2020.
- It is one of the first studies in Germany to provide insights into bots for communication experts.
- For the first time, the researchers analyzed millions of social media posts to find out whether social bots try to influence the social media comunication of the top 30 German corporations (DAX-30 stock index).
- Secondly, in-depth interviews with representatives of companies and consultancies were conducted to find out about the scenarios in which chatbots are already used.
Downloads und further readings
Reeves & Nass (1996): The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media like Real People and Places.
Gentsch, P. (2019): AI in Marketing, Sales and Service. How Marketers without a Data Science Degree can use AI, Big Data and Bots.