Why Political Bots are Effective but Commercial Bots are Not

Political Bots are Harmful but Effective

Since the 2016 Presidential election, Americans have learned that Russia has been using fake social media accounts to distort reality, push disinformation, incite and enhance divisions, skew online polls, and dissuade authentic, civilized debate. It appears that the goal of this psychologically targeted cyber war against Americans has been to influence Americans’ actions—and, particularly, to manipulate how Americans vote.

If this large-scale manipulation sounds far-fetched, consider a microcosmic example:

Jane likes Candidate A, so she followed her on Twitter and often likes and retweets Candidate A’s tweets.

One day, Jane sees a disturbing tweet—that Candidate A had worked with and accepted money from a convicted rapist. Jane had been raped as a teen, so the headline alone upsets her.

The next day, Jane sees hundreds of tweets roll through her timeline that show pictures of Candidate A with the convicted rapist, describe the convicted rapists’ crimes, tell the victims’ stories, and detail how he had gotten an early release because his wealthy family hired an attorney who was able to find a loophole in the case.

Jane wasn’t certain how deep Candidate A’s relationship with the ex-con was—but it doesn’t matter. She can’t shake the negative association with Candidate A. So, on election day, Jane votes for an alternative candidate.

Now amplify this example by 100 million bots, cyborgs, and trolls (a generously low estimate of the fake accounts that exist on Twitter). Simply put, these fake accounts are micro-targeted propaganda for the digital age.

Emotional reactions easily drown out and overtake intellectual analysis and fact-based reasoning. That’s the psychological edge exploited by the propagandist. (Psychology Today)

Political propaganda works because it appeals to emotions and targets the weaknesses in human nature.

Commercial Bots—The Pretense of Popularity

Bots and cyborgs are not exclusively political, however. On the contrary, commercial bots are routinely used to:

  • Puff-up follower numbers for the pretense of popularity

  • Puff-up supporters—to give fake, positive reviews

  • Amplify a product, brand, or organization

One of the few commonalities between fake political and fake commercial accounts is that both are a practice in deception. As a matter of fact, fake commercial accounts could arguably fall under the umbrella of “Misleading Advertising and Deceptive Marketing Practices.” Whether a nonprofit is attempting to boost followers so the Director can get more funding because the fake followers make it appear as if the organization’s “reach” has grown, or a music band uses fake supporters to say how much they like the newly released CD to try to convince real consumers it is worth buying, or a tabloid uses fake accounts to retweet its articles to make it appear more influential than it really is—the use of fake accounts is a purposeful attempt to manipulate consumers’ perception and, thus, behavior.

Aside from the questionable practice of profiting by deception—there are several significant problems with using fake commercial accounts as a marketing tactic:

  • Fake commercial accounts don’t work on human psychology the same way fake political accounts do.

  • Measuring actual consumer engagement becomes nearly impossible.

  • Consumer trust—one of the cornerstones of brand success—is broken.

Fake Commercial Accounts are Missing a Key Component

Though both commercial and political fake accounts attempt to sway people to take a particular action, the commercial accounts don’t act the same as their political counterparts. The biggest difference is that fake commercial accounts are missing the key feature that makes fake political accounts effective—an appeal to emotion.

Fake commercial accounts rely mostly on the pretense of popularity. The line of thinking goes something like this: “success breeds success; if we look popular, people will think we are popular and be more likely to purchase our products.” Though it may be true that popularity tends to attract people of all ages, there is a fatal flaw in this line of thinking:

Popularity doesn’t translate into financial conversions as easily as emotional pull translates into (free) voter conversions.

This is particularly true as the number of individuals and organizations (and governments) using fake accounts continues to grow. Years ago, your organization may have looked popular with 100,000 fake followers. Over time, however, your competitors also obtained 100,000 fake followers. In the end, you’re back to square one while potential customers are stuck interacting with hundreds of thousands of fake accounts pushing different brands.

The Problem of Measuring Authentic Consumer Engagement

With hundreds of millions of fake accounts flooding social media platforms, a social media ad campaign potentially could be launched by bots, replied to by bots, and retweeted or reposted by bots. No consumer interaction necessary. And bots don’t buy your product.

This leaves organizations in a quandary. How do organizations determine real-account interactions from fake-account interactions? Is it even possible to measure real-consumer engagement on social media?

If organizations can’t measure authentic consumer engagement, their ability to determine if marketing dollars are being used effectively is severely limited. Given the importance of authentic consumer engagement to brand success, fake commercial accounts are problematic at best.

Broken Trust

As users are becoming more aware of fake accounts, they are also becoming more adept at identifying the people and organizations using them. From the consumers’ perspective—what they see are deceitful organizations trying to dupe people into buying from them. This is not the message businesses should be sending to potential customers.

If your customers feel that your message is insincere, forceful, or in any way manipulative, they may disregard your message and all messages coming from you in the future.

– Jayson DeMers, Forbes, “How Brands Should Be Working To Fix The Consumer Trust Crisis.”

Some companies are catching on to how detrimental the use of fake accounts can be—for all businesses. In June 2018, Unilever's Keith Weed announced:

We [the business community] need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.

He also recommended several solutions: “The key to improving the situation is three-fold: cleaning up the influencer ecosystem by removing misleading engagement; making brands and influencers more aware of the use of dishonest practices; and improving transparency from social platforms to help brands measure impact.”

While the effectiveness of the fake political accounts may give the impression that fake accounts are a cheap and quick means to influence consumer behavior, people and organizations would be wise to heed Mr. Weed’s words—and avoid the innumerable pitfalls of jumping on the bot bandwagon. Building an authentic social media presence is time-consuming, but the benefits of doing so will continue for the long-haul. Because integrity really does matter. Even in marketing.

By Virginia Murr, Character HQ