Twitter "bots" may help drive social movements world over, say scientists who suggest that automated tweets can be used to make an issue trend, grab public attention and trigger policy change.
Bots - short for robots - are simple computer programmes designed to carry out automated tasks. In internet terms, bots are non-human actors that often try to go undetected. Although we have known about Twitter bots for years, the new research marks the first time that bots' social clout was studied in the field of information systems and management.
"When a topic trends on Twitter, chances are a lot of central or very well-connected accounts are tweeting about it and perhaps shaping how others react. We found that some of these central accounts are actually bots," said Carolina Salge, a PhD student at University of Georgia's Terry College of Business in the US.
"Once enough accounts are tweeting about the same thing, that creates buzz, and organisations really respond to buzz," said Salge.
Due to the increasing prevalence and sophistication of bots, their invisible influence may be affecting news reports and social media research, said Elena Karahanna, professor at Terry College of Business.
"Bots amplify the message. They amplify how many people the message reaches and how fast it reaches them," said Karahanna.
"They spread the word very, very quickly. That's one reason they can become central actors in these networks," she said.
While bots often try to pass as humans online, their purposes are not always nefarious, Salge said.
"Most of the research on bots focuses on detection because there is a clear assumption that they're often bad," she said.
"But we started to see that bots can also be used for good, like protesting corruption.
"It appears that a lot of movements are using bots to increase awareness of their cause on social media with the hopes to be reported by the mainstream media," said Salge.
"If that is indeed the case, it is definitely one way to put pressure on organisations or governments to do something," she said.
Researchers examined the online protest that erupted following a 2013 ruling by Brazil's Supreme Federal Court that was seen as too lenient on corrupt politicians. Once the verdict was handed down, thousands of Brazilians took to Twitter to proclaim their outrage.
Some protestors created bots that retweeted relevant hashtags or news stories, catapulting the story to "trending" status on Twitter and gaining widespread attention. Bots and cyborg accounts can occupy an ethical grey area, which makes being able to identify them important, Karahanna said.
"They may be used to spread fake news, but they may also be used to spread facts. And I think that's where the ethical line is. If they are spreading the truth, it's not unethical," she said....