A Digital Pandemic: Social Media Spam Bots - The Khuram Dhanani Foundation
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A Digital Pandemic: Social Media Spam Bots

A Digital Pandemic: Social Media Spam Bots

As of very recent years, social media of all kinds are used by well over 50% of the world’s population for an average of 3 hours a day. That’s more people engaging online than bathing every day! Now while that may not be so surprising to some users, who spend more time reading, swiping, and admiring strangers through a screen than most would spend sleeping, social media giants such as Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are now becoming an inarguable state of being for us all. But, as the number of people using this internet phenomenon grows, so does the amount of those who wish to capitalize on its success through malicious means. The most ravaging of these means used today is the ever-annoying Spam Bots.

Anyone who has been through the comment section of quite literally any social media the past few years has undoubtedly been bombarded firsthand by the numerous types of comments that suggest to anyone brave, or better yet, unfortunate enough to read them that they should “Click the link,” “Follow my page,” “Like my comment,” “Check out my website,” You get the picture. As you can see, all of these comments urge you to give your attention away from the content you have chosen to consume to get something from you. Not an issue, right? I mean, there are scammers and solicitors around every corner as long as there are people to stumble upon them and listen, and we are all taught to ignore them and move along to enjoy ourselves how intended. There are significant unknowns surrounding these bots involved. Like how widespread are the bad bots? What are their real intentions? And, fundamentally, what is a bot? 

An online bot is generally described as a set of designed algorithms or programs (or a simple artificial intelligence) sometimes used to mimic a verifiably human user for a litany of different purposes. While not all bots are evil and are deployed officially by the platform to do anything from platform maintenance to ironically blocking the use of other more nefarious bots, a much more significant percentage of online bots have been built and used for explicitly malicious purposes. A massive problem with these bots is that it is challenging to tell the difference between a helpful bot, an antagonistic bot, and an honest-to-goodness human-run account with an intentionally flamboyant or inflammatory sense of humor.

Now, different avenues of media tend to attract different types of audiences. For example, sites like Instagram are often perused for their millions of beautiful people who garner followings based on the photos they post for all to see. A small portion of images tend to be somewhat… let’s say, suggestive in nature because, let’s admit it, sex does, and almost indefinitely, will sell. So obviously, it will become a massive topic for scammers-to-be to latch onto to get attention from anyone looking through the site who may be a bit “charged” to engage in those comments and, sometimes, lead them to fall prey to these requests. But obviously, these requests and promises will prove fallible every single time. Like many of us have been told, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That is to say that another very tricky thing about bots pertains to how complex and diverse they have all become. As a platform’s audience evolves, so will the themes of their scams and the sophistication of the dialogue of bots develop.

Interestingly enough, the massive surge of social media bots may directly correlate with the real Coronavirus pandemic. And yes, I realize it may sound like a stretch but let me explain. When the global lockdown took place in late 2019 and early 2020, with everyone stuck behind closed doors with a small way of socialization or entertainment, naturally, hundreds of millions of people who were not so very familiar with the internet and precisely what it has to offer, stormed every surface and service of the digital space. In doing so, every single popular avenue for entertainment and socialization, namely social media platforms, boomed, with many of the more popular sites and apps gaining upwards of 60 percent in interaction and new users. But of course, we are all aware of the civic principle that with rapid growth in populations also comes a rapid increase in crime. Many online criminals quickly saw the artificial inflation of the internet populace as an opportunity to take advantage and make more money from users who were not quite used to how the internet worked—even making it safe to say that a horrible pandemic that engulfed the real world sparked a terrible pandemic in the digital one.

While these scams are not new by any means, they have become increasingly more elaborate and familiar, especially recently. It is now much more challenging to enjoy connecting with other like-minded audience members freely and just impossible to ignore. It has, dare I say, become one of the most debilitating and harmful internet-wide diseases ever seen online. Unfortunately, there are no apparent cures, preventatives, or effective treatments. Now, these scam bots are so ubiquitous that you will even find them parading around the comment section of your favorite blogs or the Twitter accounts of your mother-in-law’s bakery down the street if you look hard enough.

The efforts to combat this have been effectively considered futile or just band-aids to an infected wound at best. The teams behind these sites, no sure fault to them, have still been unable to moderate these types of comments effectively, so it may even seem like there is no energy being put into stopping the spread of annoyance we call spambots. Fortunately, this issue is being discussed (or, more accurately, rebuked) so thoroughly and so fiercely that the most expectant of us can probably believe that it is only a matter of time before the great overseers of this incredible playground we call the world wide web, finds a more permanent, satisfying solution to the plaque that continues to sweep through all of our screens every day.