Celebrities more harmful than bots on social media, study finds

EDINBURGH, Scotland — It’s fairly common knowledge these days that not all accounts and users on social media are actually real people. Some are “bots” programmed to convey and promote a particular political slant or talking point, while others just spam the web with advertisements. Interestingly, however, researchers from the University of Edinburgh find celebrities are actually bigger culprits than bots when it comes spreading misinformation and harmful rhetoric on social platforms.

Scientists report that comments and messages posted by bots on sensitive topics like Brexit, climate change, or immigration hold far less sway on actual human readers’ opinions than comments posted by celebrities on the same topics. More specifically, study authors say tweets shared by people with more than 10,000 followers appear to have the biggest influence on the views of the public.

“Millions of people rely on social media as their main news source, which means that information they see there can have a major bearing on the views they hold. Our study suggests that fears of bots spreading harmful messages on social media might be overrated. Our findings show that influencers and celebrities have the most impact on opinions, not bots. This is the case for various topics, and may also apply to current concerns about bots that spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories and views opposing vaccines,” says study leader Dr. Walid Magdy, of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, in a university release.

‘Influencers’ really do influence opinions

Prior studies had already confirmed the existence of social media bots, but this is one of the first projects to actually investigate if the scripted comments they spew out actually influence public opinion. To research this, the team assessed data on over 4,000 Twitter users pertaining to seven modern topics people consider “contentious.” Each person’s views on those topics then helped the researchers to study both direct and indirect interactions among more than 19 million other accounts, including bots.

The team then compared the effect bot comments and posts had on other accounts’ views (likes, comments, retweets) to the effect of other accounts owned by either celebrities or social media “influencers.”

All in all, the study finds bots have little influence on other peoples’ opinions. On average, bots made up less than 10 percent of the profiles showing either direct or indirect sway over users’ opinions. Meanwhile, accounts with 10,000-plus followers accounted for over half the accounts shown to be influencing views. That statistic jumps to over 70 percent when assessing views shaped specifically by exposure to negative messages conveyed by social media influencers.

The study is published in the journal Social Network Analysis and Mining.

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