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How Twitter bots can be used for good

Twitter bots have become a source of enormous controversy, particularly regarding their influence in the 2016 presidential election and the distribution of fake news. A new study from the University of Southern California (USC) reveals how Twitter bots can be used to spread positive messages that encourage good behaviors.

Bots are automated social media accounts programmed to share and spread information in a manner that mirrors the way a typical user would. But since their inception, Twitter bots have developed a notoriously negative reputation for spamming Twitter users with incorrect or abusive content.

However, new research suggests that bots could be used to improve the social media environment by positively influencing users and spreading valuable information that may not be at the top of everyone’s social media feeds.

The study, co-authored by Emilio Ferrara, a research assistant professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, used Twitter bot accounts to spread positive messages and reveals how social media influences our choices.

Ferrara and colleagues created 39 bot accounts to send positive hashtags through Twitter, reaching 25,000 real followers during the months of October to December 2016.

The hashtags ranged from health tips to silly trends, like photoshopping a celebrity’s face on a Turkey at Thanksgiving. The researchers then recorded the impact the hashtags had on Twitter.

One of the study’s most surprising findings was the way that information spreads and influences people online.

Information on its own can only have so much of an impact, but if the same message is spread on many different channels and platforms, it has much more influential power.

“Now we have seen empirically that when you are exposed to a given piece of information multiple times, your chances of adopting this information increase every time,” said Ferrera.

“It seems there are some cognitive mechanisms that reinforce your likelihood to believe in or adopt a piece of information when it is validated by multiple sources in your social network.”

Ferreira’s research shows that bots can be a positive addition to social media, possibly even working to help save lives through spreading breaking news.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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