An estimated two-thirds of tweets linking to stories from some of the most popular websites don’t come from humans, but from bots,  a Pew Research Center report has revealed.

Certain types of websites were much more popular with the bots than others: Around 90% of the tweeted links to ‘adult content’ sites came from what was likely bot account, and the number for sports content stood at 76%. For news content, the percentage was same as the overall number that is 66%. It must be noted that these percentages only account for the number of tweets sent out and do not represent how many humans actually engaged/interacted with these tweets.

Source: Pew Research Center

The report analyzed a sample of 1.2 million tweets containing links that went out between July 27 and September 11, 2017, categorizing 2,315 of the most-linked-to English-language websites by topic. To figure out whether a Twitter account tweeting out a link was a bot or human, Pew relied on Botometer, an automated posting detection tool from researchers at the University of Southern California and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University.

Why are bots so popular?

The Pew study highlights the reason why bots are used so extensively on social media, they are extremely efficient at amplifying content.

Researchers discovered that a tiny number of highly active bots could drive massive amounts of link-sharing. The report noted that 22% of all links to news and current events generated during the study originated from just 500 accounts — all suspected bots. “By comparison,” the report also observed, “the 500 most-active human users are responsible for a much smaller share (an estimated 6%) of tweeted links to these outlets.”

Bots and fake news

The prevalence of bots on Twitter might lead one to assume that they are the primary cause of fake news being spread on the platform. But in fact, bots don’t seem to have a major role in making fake news go viral. Most of the bots observed in the Pew study had no demonstrative political bias. And in fact, among popular news and current events content, links with overt political content were among the least frequently shared by bots.

This is not surprising though. While bots do post fake news its human users who play a bigger role in its amplification. A study released by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab in March, which examined about 126,000 stories shared by three million people on Twitter from 2006 to 2017, found that false news was about 70% likely to be retweeted by people than true news.

Twitter vs bots

In February, Twitter had said it would no longer allow users to post identical messages from multiple accounts, in a crackdown on tactics used by Russian bots and others malicious actors to make tweets or topics go viral. Developers are now banned from using any system that simultaneously posts “identical or substantially similar” tweets from multiple accounts at once, or makes actions like liking, retweeting, and following across multiple accounts at once.

At the NAMApolicy event on ‘Fake News’ in February, Twitter India’s Mahima Kaul said that the platform catches 3.2 million suspicious accounts every week and these accounts are not added to the Monthly Active Users (MAUs) stat by the company. In an effort nix suspicious accounts at the point of creation Kaul added that 450,000 suspicious logins are dealt with every day.

In December 2017, Twitter had released guidelines to implement changes in their policy to reduce hateful imagery, violent threats and groups inciting or glorifying brutality.