How to detect 'bots' on social media

Watch out for generic replies, anonymous accounts and fast follows.

The nuisance wrought by automated "bot" accounts on social media in the run-up to and since the 2016 elections is now coming under greater scrutiny.

Indictments served from the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller found that Russian actors were using these automated accounts to amplify extremist views on social networks in an attempt to sow discord.

So how can you tell if an account is a bot on websites like Twitter, Instagram and Reddit? Well, here are a few giveaways.


– Klobuchar says Twitter, Facebook should face fines over bots.

Instant follows, replies

ChatBots Magazine says a big giveaway is that in the instant after you post a picture on Instagram or tweeted something, an account immediately follows you and possibly replies to your post.

Checking out their followers

Another common feature of automated bots is that they're programmed to follow and then unfollow your account within a 24-hour period.

As such, bots will tend to have a large number of followers (people who follow them back after they're initially followed by the bot), but follow few accounts itself, ChatBots notes.

Use a bot-finder

This is mainly aimed at checking out Twitter, where brands' social media reputations can be severely undermined or even hijacked by automated bots. 

Botometer is among the services that allow you to check out your user account to find out how many of your followers are automated. Botornot is another that provides such a service.

Anonymous accounts

If you come across social media accounts where the identity of the user is not clear, either because they've used a pseudonym or a non-human photo, there's a chance a bot is at work.

This Medium piece by the Atlantic's Digital Forensic Research Lab says that warning flags include no personal information being given, non-specific avatars and backgrounds, locations are vague (ie. USA) and the bio features something like a "generic political statement."

Few original posts 

If you check out an account and find that it mainly features large numbers of retweets/shares/likes of other posts, but few if any original posts, then this is likely the work of a bot automatically programmed to share posts with certain content.

What about Instagram? 

Instagram is another site that's been beset by issues where users are able to buy fake, automated followers to boost their brands.

SassyBites suggests that signs you're being followed by a bot includes if they make extremely generic comments on your picture, if they like a lot of your pictures in a row, and if they unfollow you shortly after you follow them.

Check out the picture they use

Mashable says bots often use stock or recycled images as their avatars, and these can be uncovered by putting the pic into a Google Image to see if it's popped up elsewhere.

And their location

Another Twitter tip from ChatBots is to look at where the tweet originates from. Most tweet from their cellphones or computers, but if you see one that originates "from API" suggests it's automated.

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