Having been obsessed with the internet since our family first got dial-up back in 1999, I’ve had front row seats to the ever-changing landscape of the wonderful world wide web. But, as we go further into the exploration of technology, I’m starting to wonder what’s next for us? Particularly as the battle of humans vs bots continues.
First, I’d like to say hello to any of the sentient bots reading this. Welcome. Feel free to scan through. But, please don’t try to attack me, I’m not your enemy I swear.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get started.
Back in 2013, bot traffic accounted for around 60% of all traffic on the internet. In the few years after that, it started to decline a little bit (sitting around or under 50%) and we all breathed a sigh of relief. But, don’t get too relaxed… In 2017/18 we started seeing another meaningful spike in bot traffic.
Here’s the definition of ‘bot’ from the reputable Urban Dictionary.
And, with the state of the internet at the moment, I’m beginning to wonder: is this the end of the internet as we know it?
As a business owner, I’ve sure seen my fair share of bot traffic on my website. It clogs up my Google Analytics data with useless stats that I have to go through complex processes to filter out. I’m sure you (as an avid social media user) have encountered your own inundation of bots on Twitter, Facebook and whatever other social platform you use.
In 2017/18 we started seeing another meaningful spike in bot traffic.
But, let’s dive a bit deeper to get more of an understanding of what’s going on.
There are two types of bots on the internet: good and bad. Good ones are the ones we need to keep the internet working the way we need it to (like search engine crawlers, news aggregators, chatbots and media bots). But, the bad ones are the ones we need to watch.
It’s the bad bots that are responsible for financial fraud, compromising websites, taking over user accounts, spam and data mining. And it’s the bad bots that are growing in number.
According to the 2018 Bad Bot Report by GlobalDots, bad bots have grown by 9% over 2017/18 – where they now account for 21.8% of all traffic. To put this in perspective, that’s basically saying that nearly a quarter of all traffic online is from bad bots.
Bots are an annoyance, for sure. The question remains:
Why do we care?
We should care about this for a number of reasons. But, one of the big ones (besides the fact that they can hack your website, steal your data and just generally make your life difficult) is that bots are actually influencing the information you receive and consume.
If they have the power to do that, they’ve got the power to influence your very own thinking.
Dark stuff, hey.
There are a number of spambots out there whose sole purpose is to spread a narrative. It doesn’t really matter what the narrative is (*cough* it’s usually political *cough*), but they are designed to disseminate it to as many people as possible.
By doing that, they then have the ability to influence the algorithms that aggregate news or trending topics. Meaning your Google search, Twitter search and trending topics on social media are going to reflect the narrative that has been spread by these malicious little internet bots.
I mean, we’ve all heard about the investigation into Russian interference in the US election. Well, a big part of that is about the role of bots.
So, not only are bots trying to compromise all of the websites out there, mine for data, breach security systems and scrape content, they’re also trying to influence the very way we think and interact.
Generally, bad bots are just trying to cause chaos.
Recognising Bad Bots In The Wild
You’re probably thinking: “yeah, Rhiannon, I get it. Bots are bad, but it’s so easy to tell a bot from a human, so I’d never be influenced.”
Wrong. The fact is: you probably can’t tell the difference between a bot and a human.
Apparently, according to Pew Research Center:
Only 47% of Americans are confident that they can tell the difference between a bot and a human online.
That’s saying that over half of Americans wouldn’t be able to identify a bot.
Let that sink in for a minute.
We’re already at the stage where over half of Americans wouldn’t be able to identify a bot, and as technology advances, this number is only going to increase. Bots are soon going to be unrecognisable out there in the wild. That’s a fact that could irrevocably change the internet as we know it.
What Comes After ‘The Age of the Bad Bot’?
Bear in mind that this is all without even going into the advent of online trolls, astroturfing, ‘fake news’ and propaganda on the internet either.
I haven’t even discussed the buildings in Russia (or China, or India, or pretty much any other country in the world) that are filled with people dedicated to posting things on the internet to create or support a narrative and/or to spread propaganda.
The big question I have, seeing the rise in both bots and just general manipulation on the internet is: where to from here?
I already don’t trust basically anything I read or see online. (Yet, here I am adding to the noise of online blogs).
I’m aware of the influence that’s happening when I consume information on the internet – from the innocent Instagrammers promoting a product to the insidious bots choosing my Google News articles. Yet, there’s nothing I can really do to stop it.
I suppose that’s just the nature of the internet.
Trying to influence the human population is a lucrative gig and one that has been going on since the invention of advertising. With the internet, it just makes mass manipulation so much easier, and it’s enticing for everyone – human and automated – to want to capitalise on that.
There’s nothing you can do but keep your eyes open.
Be aware of what you’re consuming and why you’re consuming it. Be aware of your beliefs and if they’re being manipulated. Be wary of accounts that have thousands of followers and no engagement.
On second thought, maybe a select few of us can burn all of our internet-connected devices, move to a cave and live without the incessant manipulation that comes from our constant need for online connection. That ought to do the trick.
That’s just my point of view though.
If you want some further reading (from people who are way more qualified to write about this stuff), head over to these links:
- 2018 Bad Bot Report: The Year Bad Bots Went Mainstream
- Most Americans Say They Can’t Tell The Difference Between a Social Media Bot and a Human
- How Advanced Socialbots Have Infiltrated Twitter
- How Many Of The Internet’s Users Are Robots
- On The Internet Bots Have Already Overrun Humans, What Do They Want?
Also, for further insight into the manipulation of the internet as a whole, I highly recommend this episode from the podcast ‘Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know’.
Check out my previous post here.
Read more about who I am here.