A study from the Annenberg School for Communication found that Twitter bots are less influential than verified accounts in the spread of information on the platform.
Although the number of bot accounts significantly outnumbered the verified media accounts, such as those belonging to news organizations, journalists, and public figures, the verified accounts were far more likely to receive retweets, suggesting that they are much more visible. The study, from Annenberg professor Sandra González-Bailón, analyzed hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts during two events: the 2018 Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement in France and the 2017 Catalan referendum for independence from Spain.
The study focused on these events because heightened political tension can often lead to the spread of misleading information and inflammatory content on social media.
“Given the impact that misinformation can have on democracies, it is important to understand the role that bots play in the dissemination of news and in the broader media landscape,” González-Bailón told Annenberg News.
The study also compared the Twitter data to web-tracking data, including the traffic to news sites in France and Spain during the same period. Researchers found reduced traffic to certain news outlets on Twitter compared to the web, but they did not find any evidence that bots caused the discrepancy.
González-Bailón told Annenberg News that researchers must continue to explore the influence of bots on social media manipulation, looking at hijacking hashtags and gaming the algorithmic ranking of content.
"In any case, our results cast doubts on the ability of bots to dominate information flows during episodes of heightened political tension," González-Bailón told Annenberg News.