Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What Is A Bot?

I like to go to the Lockportians page on Facebook to see what people are talking about and satisfy my annoying need to correct people from time to time. If I have ever corrected you, please do not take it personally. It is like a disease I have that I cannot seem to get rid of and I really do not mean to be insensitive. During some recent conversations, the idea of bots came up a couple of times and many people seemed confused. I'm going to try and explain what bots are and help you understand who uses them. A lot of you are not going to like what I have to say, but, as they say, the truth hurts.

First and foremost, a bot is not a human being. A bot is a program made using some form of artificial intelligence to be able to respond to statements and pass itself off as a real person. Years ago, it used to be fun to get into a conversation with a bot because they were never able to learn anything and their vocabulary was limited. But these days, bots learn fast and they are fooling millions of people into thinking that they are real humans.

What is the danger in having bots on Facebook? Not to sound condescending, but a lot of people believe whatever they read on Facebook. A bot is programmed to try and convince everyone to accept someone else's agenda as the best idea. For example, both Trump and Clinton had bots on Facebook during the campaign that would get into some pretty intense arguments with people online. Those bots were trying to make their candidate look like the best choice, while burying the other candidate at the same time.

Did they work? We will never know, but the proliferation of "fake news" seems to have had a profound effect on the election. People started believing information to be fact that was actually nothing but fiction. For some people, reading the same information over and over again on Facebook makes that information the truth, regardless of what the facts may be. A candidate will make a statement and, instead of offering facts to back up that statement, they would unleash their army of bots on Facebook to talk ad nauseam about that piece of information until it was accepted as fact.

People do not do their own research anymore, so it is easy for bots to sway opinions. Memes are usually not factual, yet people believe memes because they see them all over social media. Unfortunately, all it takes to convince the American people that something is a fact is to keep hammering it on social media. After a while, the lie is accepted as fact and the bot has done its job.

At a national level, bots are hard to spot. When you click on their profiles, they look like real people with friends and plenty of posts on their walls. One way to spot a bot at the national level is if that bot suddenly starts taking an unhealthy interest in local conversations. If someone from North Dakota suddenly starts posting all over WNY conversations about a topic, that is usually a bot.

Hiring companies to create bots is expensive, and that is why lower level bots are easier to spot. On Lockportians recently, at least one bot was making extremely positive posts about a local mayor. The bot's profile has plenty of generic Lockport stuff on it, but nothing personal at all. Sometimes bots will have locations in other countries, which makes them easy to identify. But even bots with a local presence can be easy to spot.

Bots are inherently dangerous because they are soulless pieces of software that will engage people in conversations 24 hours a day and spread false information. At this point, Facebook has not announced any real plans to clamp down on bots, mostly because it is an extremely difficult thing to do.

The next time you are engaged in a conversation with someone who seems extremely intent upon advancing false information online, you might be talking to a piece of software. Bots use colloquial speech patterns and even swear like people who post online. Bots allow people to feel vindicated for taking a particular stand because those people feel like they have the support of others. In reality, all they have is a piece of software doing its job and lying to everyone.

George N Root III is a Lockport resident and not a bot. Follow him on Twitter @georgenroot3, or send him a message at