Social Media Bots Explained: Malicious Accounts and How to Spot Them

Social Media Bots Explained: Malicious Accounts and How to Spot Them


The term “social media bot” is no longer just associated
with chatbots or customer service AI. Rather, social media bots
have a far more unseemly reputation nowadays due to malicious
misinformation campaigns.

But what exactly are these malicious social bots? How do you
spot the different types? And are there tools that can help you
sort real accounts from the fakes? Here’s what you need to

What Are Malicious Social Media Bots?

While there are different types of bots on social media
platforms, we will be focusing on malicious political and malware
bots. These bots differ from customer service bots or other
automated accounts. For example, some bots such as Deep Question
Bot are meant to be a fun tool for Twitter users to use. Meanwhile,
bots like Thread Reader App turn Twitter threads into a page of

Malicious social media bots and fake accounts, however, pose as
human users. They aim to manipulate
public opinion on social media
, spread fake news, increase
polarization, sow distrust in institutions, spread government
propaganda, and propel conspiracies.

According to the
Academic Society
, intent makes malicious bots different from
other automated accounts.

“Malicious bots, in contrast, are designed with the purpose to
harm. They operate on social media with a fake identity. Malicious
bots include spam, the theft of personal data and
identities, the spreading of misinformation and noise during
debates, the infiltration of companies and the diffusion of
malware,” the organization says in its 2018 guide on the

Bots achieve this by boosting certain hashtags and keywords,
deploying targeted harassment, and sharing certain links and

According to a 2017 working paper by the University of Oxford,
titled “Computational
Propaganda Worldwide: Executive Summary
“, the people behind
these bots range from small fringe groups to large political
campaigns and governments.

Twitter is the most notorious platform dealing with social media
bots, but these malicious bots also exist on Facebook, Reddit,
Weibo, and other smaller networks.

Do Malicious Bots Support Specific Politics?

While these bots were notably used in the 2016 US election and
the leadup to the Brexit referendum, they aren’t only aimed at
one side of the political spectrum.

A paper published in Nature, titled “The spread of
low-credibility content by social bots
“, found that a common
denominator found among many malicious bots is the sharing of
low-credibility content—such as fake news and misinformation.
This misinformation targets different sides of the political

“Successful low-credibility sources in the United States,
including those on both ends of the political spectrum, are heavily
supported by social bots,” the paper says. “Since the earliest
manifestations uncovered in 2010, we have seen influential bots
affect online debates about vaccination policies and participate
actively in political campaigns.”

While bots as a whole aren’t partisan, usually individual bot
accounts will stick with one type of viewpoint to promote (such as
an anti-science view).

Different Types of Malicious Social Bots

twitter app on mobile

When it comes to fake social media accounts aimed at amplifying
political views and sharing misinformation, there are a few
different types. This depends on their level of automation and
their main aims.

We take a look at the different bots and explain each

Standard/Full Bots

A standard social media bot is an account that is fully
automated. These accounts have no human input in their daily posts
and operation. Rather, they rely on algorithms and scripts to guide
their posts.

These bots amplify content (retweet bots) or reply to content
with certain keywords or hashtags (reply bots).

Malware Bots

Malware bots are another type of fully automated malicious bot.
However, rather than focusing on misinformation, they aim to
compromise the security of social media users. These accounts often
focus on clickbait content, sometimes posing as an existing content
publisher, to try redirect users to a malicious website.


A cyborg is a partially automated or hybrid account. The ratio
of bot-to-human posts on a specific cyborg account varies, but
automation needs to be significant (rather than an occasional
automated post).

These accounts use human input to help obscure the fact that
they are bots. Human input can help guide replies, perform targeted
harassment, or add more human-like behavior.

Cyborgs are not the same as human users who may use schedulers
like TweetDeck for their posts. Cyborgs are fake accounts posing as
a real person, with the aim of distributing information to achieve
a particular goal or for targeted trolling.

How to Spot Social Media Bots

search for bots

Social media bots are increasingly difficult to identify as
their algorithms become more sophisticated. For example, it was
often easy to tell a bot account from a real account due to the
lack of original posts—only resharing of other posts or adding
hashtags to existing posts. However, more and more bots are able to
post original content and replies.

According to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research
Lab, political bots share three characteristics across all

“Many of these bot and cyborg accounts do conform to a
recognizable pattern: activity, amplification, anonymity. An
anonymous account which is inhumanly active and which obsessively
amplifies one point of view is likely to be a political bot, rather
than a human,” the lab says in an article
on spotting social media bots

These traits are some of the major red flags that an account is
likely a bot.

A few other signs that a social media account is actually a
malicious bot or cyborg include:

  • A recent account creation date
  • The account shows coordinated resharing and amplifying of posts
    between a small network of accounts
  • Unrealistically fast response times to others, indicating that
    the account is almost always online
  • Low-quality comments with limited and repetitive
  • Usernames with long, random number sequences
  • Stolen profile images from real people or “patriotic”
    profile images (such as flags, weapons, political symbols)
  • A high volume of retweeted and shared content, with limited
    original posts
  • Limited focus on content outside of a pre-defined set of
    hashtags and topics.

Real people tend to tweet on multiple topics, including more
mundane posts such as how their day is going. They also do not post
24 hours a day at massive volumes.

4 Tools for Finding Social Media Bots

Since it’s becoming more difficult to tell bots from humans on
social media, researchers and analysts have released a number of
tools to better analyze accounts.

None of these tools are fool-proof. However, along with other
types of observations, these tools can definitely help users better
figure out the likelihood that an account is a bot or cyborg.

These tools focus on Twitter, where malicious bots are possibly
the most prolific.

1. Botometer

botometer bot analysis tool

Formerly called BotOrNot, Botometer is a tool created by a team
at Indiana University. The tool uses an algorithm to determine the
likelihood of an account’s automation.

With Botometer, you can not only check a Twitter account, but
also the bot ratings of an account’s followers. Since bots often
work within a network, amplifying the messages of each other, this
is a helpful feature.


botcheck account analysis factors is a browser extension that analyzes Twitter
accounts to determine if they are propaganda bots. The company’s
website also includes an analysis tool.

The tool considers factors such as post frequency, retweets, and
polarizing language.

A great part of the tool is the ability to report whether
BotCheck has incorrectly categorized an account.

3. Account Analysis

account analysis app arguetron

Account Analysis is another tool that lets you analyze the
activity of public Twitter accounts. Created by data analyst Luca
Hammer, the tool gives insightful metrics and visualizations for
account activity.

This helps you identify bot accounts that other tools might have
missed. For example, in a test of a known bot account, multiple
tools failed to identify the bot (due to its focus on posting
tweets, lack of hashtags, and no retweets). However, the daily
rhythm of the account’s posts (all day, every day) and the
interface used by the account (the platform Cheap Bots, Done
Quick!) confirm that the account is, in fact, a bot.

So while Account Analysis doesn’t assign a bot rating, it is
still a useful tool to identify bot accounts.

4. Social Bearing

social bearing twitter analysis tool

Social Bearing also provides a summary of statistics related to
public Twitter accounts, similar to Account Analysis. This summary
includes tweet frequency, retweets, replies, language sentiment,
and more.

An overview of these statistics is incredibly useful in deciding
whether an account may be a bot. Best of all, the tool is free and
doesn’t require you to sign in with Twitter.

Don’t Trust It Just Because Someone Shared It

While bots are a major tool in the spread of misinformation and
fake news, you also need to be wary of the information you consume
outside of social media. After all, people also share and retweet
fake news.

To raise your defenses against misinformation, check out our
guide on how to
avoid fake news
by looking for its telltale signs.

Image Credit: sdecoret/Depositphotos

Read the full article: Social
Media Bots Explained: Malicious Accounts and How to Spot


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.