Recently, social bots, (semi-) automatized accounts in social media, gained global attention in the context of public opinion manipulation. Dystopian scenarios like the malicious amplification of topics, the spreading of disinformation, and the manipulation of elections through “opinion machines” created headlines around the globe. As a consequence, much research effort has been put into the classification and detection of social bots. Yet, it is still unclear how easy an average online media user can purchase social bots, which platforms they target, where they originate from, and how sophisticated these bots are. This work provides a much needed new perspective on these questions. By providing insights into the markets of social bots in the clearnet and darknet as well as an exhaustive analysis of freely available software tools for automation during the last decade, we shed light on the availability and capabilities of automated profiles in social media platforms. Our results confirm the increasing importance of social bot technology but also uncover an as yet unknown discrepancy of theoretical and practically achieved artificial intelligence in social bots: while literature reports on a high degree of intelligence for chat bots and assumes the same for social bots, the observed degree of intelligence in social bot implementations is limited. In fact, the overwhelming majority of available services and software are of supportive nature and merely provide modules of automation instead of fully fledged “intelligent” social bots.
Social Media + Society