Bots Are Behind the Majority of Tweets With Links to Popular Sites, According to New Study

But Pew says the posts aren't illegitimate or problematic

66% of tweeted links to content on news and current events sites came from bots, according to the report. iLexx/iStock

Twitter has a bot problem. This, we know. What we don’t know—at least until now—is just how prevalent bots are in delivering links to unsuspecting Twitter users.

A new study from Pew Research Center found that the majority of links to content from popular websites are being tweeted by bots. According to the report, Pew estimates that 66 percent of tweeted links to popular news and current events websites are posted by bots. Additionally, the analysis found “that a relatively small number of automated accounts are responsible for a substantial share of the links to popular media outlets on Twitter.”

You are getting your news from bots, basically.

“We hope that these findings will help illustrate the extent to which bots play a really prominent and pervasive role in posting links to prominent sites and help inform more broadly about automated accounts,” said Aaron Smith, Pew associate director. “It is also worth highlighting that we are in no way implying that the posts that we looked at are illegitimate or problematic because they are automated.”

Emilio Ferrara, a research assistant professor for the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, took a more critical view, saying, “The Pew study focuses on data from summer 2017. Hopefully, the situation improved after Twitter’s recent attempts to mitigate the bot issue. Our current research tries to determine if bots’ influence is unchanged, if bots evolved to escape new Twitter’s detection algorithms and if they are still heavily involved and an integral part of the Twitter conversation on topics like politics and social issues.”

During a 47-day period last summer, Pew analyzed 1.2 million tweets containing links to 2,315 of the most popular websites in terms of shared links to their content—sites that focus on sports, business information, celebrities, news and organizations—and it found that a staggering amount of that sharing was being done by bots.

Pew used Botometer—an automated tool developed by researchers at USC and Indiana University to estimate the likelihood of accounts being automated—and its findings included:

  • 66 percent of tweeted links to content on news and current events sites on the list were posted or shared by bots.
  • 89 percent of tweeted links to aggregation sites were posted by bots.
  • Political bias did not play a role, as Pew found that bots shared 44 percent of links to conservative-leaning sites and 41 percent to those with a more liberal bent. Suspected bots share 57 percent to 66 percent of links to news and current events sites with audiences that are ideologically mixed or centrist. It should be noted that the time period studied by Pew was long after the 2016 U.S. presidential election and before Stormy Daniels became a household name.
  • The 500 most active accounts that are suspected to be bots were responsible for 22 percent of tweeted links to the popular news and current events studied by Pew, while the 500 most active human Twitter users were behind just 6 percent of links to those sites.

  • Bots were big on sports, responsible for 76 percent of links shared via Twitter. Smith pointed to the constant stream of machine-readable content being generated about sports events and sports teams all across the globe, adding that they are very easily repackaged in an automated way, with a built-in audience.
  • Bots were particularly active in the adult content sector, responsible for 90 percent of tweeted links. Smith joked, “We did not want to dig too deeply into the adult content. We were humans looking at these on work computers.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.