Bots have become a great scourge of the internet. Recently, they've flooded government comment systems with fake activism, distorted the national discourse on guns, and launched malicious attacks against the Justice Department. And a new study suggests they're behind the majority of links shared on Twitter, too.
A Pew Research report released Monday finds that a whole two-thirds of links to popular sites shared on Twitter come from automated accounts. But these aren't just those malicious Russian bots posing as the uncannily angry and active boy next door. They also include legitimate accounts belonging to organizations that schedule tweets through some kind of automated service. What's more, the study finds, the majority of these accounts are not as politically polarized as headlines might make them out to be, nor do they primarily link to hyper-partisan websites. In fact, some of the websites receiving the largest share of links from bots are mainstream business outlets. Oh, and porn.
"Material being posted by bots or automated accounts is not just the province of niche publications," says Aaron Smith, associate director of research at Pew. "It's much broader and more pervasive within the ecosystem as a whole."
To conduct the study, Pew researchers analyzed a random sample of 1.2 million tweets sent between July 27 and September 11, 2017, which it scraped from Twitter's public API. The researchers then analyzed the top 3,000 websites those tweets linked to during that period, and divided them into six categories: adult content, sports, celebrity, commercial products or services, organizations or groups, and news and current events. Some of those links had since gone dead, winnowing the total pool of websites to 2,315. Finally, the researchers ran all of the Twitter accounts that were