Most links to popular sites on Twitter come from bots

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That's the message from a new Pew Research Center study, out Monday, which found that two-thirds of tweets that link to digital content are generated by bots - accounts powered by automated software, not real tweeters.

Bots shared more links to popular news aggregation sites or websites that do not create content, the study found, compare to sites that publish their own reporting. Bots also proved to be far more prolific sharers when it comes to news.

A new study carried out by the Pew Research Centre has found that the majority of links to content from popular websites are being tweeted by bots, with 66 per cent of tweeted links to popular news and current events websites coming from automated accounts. In comparison, the 500 most-active human Twitter users posted just 6 percent of the links to those news outlets.

In a press release, Pew's associate research director, Aaron Smith, pointed out that the study helps quantify "the extent to which bots play a prominent and pervasive role in the social media environment".

Pew conducted a number of separate tests as well as using Botometer to cross-check the bot classifications it had made, including manually classifying accounts.

Several times a day, a Twitter bot shares views of the Earth from space.

The Pew researchers did not attempt to assess the accuracy of the material shared by the bots. And in fact, among popular news and current events content, links with overt political content were among the least frequently shared by bots.

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But Pew researchers said they did not uncover evidence of political bias based on the linking behavior of automated accounts.

To figure out which Twitter accounts were bots, the study worked with a tool called the Botometer, developed by scientists at Indiana University.

To determined what constituted a "popular" website for inclusion in its analysis, 'the Center identified almost 3,000 of the most-shared websites during the first 18 days of the study period and coded them based on a variety of characteristics'.

Bots have long plagued Twitter and other researchers have estimated as many as 15 per cent of all Twitter accounts could be fake. Links to publications that could be labeled moderate, such as the Chicago Sun-Times, were more popular among bots than links to the firmly conservative National Review. In other words, for the purposes of the study, if the Botometer ranked an account at 43 percent or higher, that account was considered to be a bot.

Twitter has been banning or suspending bot accounts linked to Russian campaign interference as well as clearly fake accounts.

That means computers, not humans, are taking control of how news and information spreads around the planet. Researchers focused on overall sharing rates, adding that the research "does not account for the subsequent shares or engagement of human users".

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