Twitter can manipulate your behaviour

Twitter can make you feel wantedTwitter is not necessarily doing what you think it does. Rather than being the place where you send out short messages to your friends and colleagues it may be the place where your behaviour is manipulated by software. Researchers in Boston, USA, have discovered that “Twitter bots” can change our behaviour. The “bots” are automated pieces of software that trawl through the Twittersphere, find some target Tweets and then automatically Retweet them. To the original Tweeter it looks like a human being has found what they said interesting. Far from it; the Tweet may never have been actually read by a real person.

The Twitter bots also sometimes include a “mention” in the Retweet. That means, for instance, if I were to Retweet something you said on Twitter, but also included my son’s Twitter name in the Retweet I would have given him a “Twitter mention”; inserting anyone’s Twitter name or handle into a Tweet is a “mention”. The automated bots will do this at random, adding people who have used similar words to your original Tweet. The implication is that one of your “followers” knows that someone else would also be interested in what you have to say and so is effecting an introduction. Indeed, this is what happens all the time with real people but automated software can do it too.

The problem for Twitter users is this. Unless you know the person who is Re-Tweeting you, the Retweet could come from automated software – not a real individual. But the inclusion of “mentions” merely adds to the illusion that someone else thinks your content is worth spreading and sharing to other like minded people.

The result is that these automated Twitter bots can fool us. They can make us think people value our material, when in actual fact no-one has engaged with our Tweets at all. However, what the researchers found next is fascinating. It seems that the automated bots are so good at giving an impression of human behaviour we behave as we would do in the real world. The bots appear to be helping create new followers and connections between the various people mentioned in the automated Retweets. In essence, the bots are creating introductions, helping us network.

But the problem is – in the real world we only introduce people to each other who we think will get on, who will share common interests or who we think can help each other. Twitter bots cannot make such value judgements and are therefore inferior to natural human behaviour. Even so, we appear to be take in by them. Perhaps it is time to review your Twitter Followers and to make sure you are only being followed by real people. That way you will minimise your chances of being manipulated by software into following other people who you have little real connection with.

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