How To Make Friends And Influence People: Spambot Edition

by Dish Staff

When researcher Luca Maria Aiello and colleagues at the University of Turin began to map out aNobii.com, an Italian social network similar to Goodreads, they created a user account for an automated crawler. They watched as the bot, named lajello, built social cred simply by “visiting” pages of other members, prompting the team to investigate the question, “Can an individual with no trust gain popularity and influence?”

The results surprised them. Every time lajello began its round of visits, it triggered a burst of comments on its public wall. When it finished its round, people quickly stopped sending messages but resumed at the same intensity when the bot started visiting again. By December 2011, lajello’s profile had become one of the most popular on the entire social network. It had received more than 66,000 visits as well as 2435 messages from more than 1200 different people.  In terms of the number of different message received, a well-known writer was the most popular on this network but lajello was second.

“Our experiment gives strong support to the thesis that popularity can be gained just with continuous “social probing”,” conclude Aiello and co. “We have shown that a very simple spambot can attract great interest even without emulating any aspects of typical human behaviour.”

The researchers then tested whether the bot had any influence over real people:

[T]hey started using the bot to send recommendations to users on who else to connect to. The spam bot could either make a recommendation chosen at random or one that was carefully selected by a recommendation engine. It then made its recommendations to users that had already linked to lajello and to other users chosen at random. Again, the results were eye-opening. “Among the 361 users who created at least one social connection in the 36 hours after the recommendation, 52 per cent followed suggestion given by the bot,” they say. …

It is not hard to see the significance of this work. Social bots are a fact of life on almost every social network and many have become so sophisticated they are hard to distinguish from humans. If the simplest of bots created by Aiello and co can have this kind of impact, it is anybody’s guess how more advanced bots could influence everything from movie reviews and Wikipedia entries to stock prices and presidential elections.