Last Updated on November 24, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
You hear the word “bot” thrown around a lot today. It’s in conversations, on the news, and even in stand-up comedians’ routines. So everyone assumes you know what it means. But what is a bot in computer terms?
Don’t be afraid to ask. I’ll explain it.
“Bot” is short for robot. But what does that mean?
“Bot” is short for robot. But it’s not exactly the kind of robot we normally think of. They aren’t physical robots like Johnny 5 from the movie Short Circuit. They’re computer programs that interact with web sites without a human being controlling them.
They call them robots because they automate a process like a physical robot would. But giving it a physical body would be redundant.
Bots aren’t always bad. Many large companies have a bot that monitors Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. When someone mentions the company on social media, it grabs the tweet or message and dumps it into a channel on a program like Slack, a popular piece of software for internal corporate chat and collaboration.
I’ve written simple bots myself to collect data from cloud-based security tools and mash it together.
Search engines like Google and Bing use bots to crawl through web sites and index them. These bots aren’t just good, they’re desirable. I get 10 times as much traffic now that Google indexes my site on a regular basis. It’s safe to say that since around 2012 or 2013, 90 percent of my traffic comes from search engines. Even with the rise of social media, the amount of traffic I get from search engines dwarfs my social media traffic, except for the 1-2 days a year some random post goes viral.
What about evil bots?
I deal with bots all the time. Every day, some bot drops a dozen spam comments hawking NFL and NHL jerseys on random blog posts. But it was much worse a decade and a half ago. Before blogs had good anti-spam measures, I could get hundreds of spam comments in a day. Dealing with the spam comments created hours of tedious work.
This is why websites, including this one, make you do strange things to prove you’re not a robot.
Other undesirable bots scrape content from web sites with the intention of posting it to their own site. This is theft, and it’s illegal, but you have to find them and catch them first.
I have a handful of followers on Twitter who are obviously spam bots. When I post something that contains a certain trigger word, a bot follows me. The telltale sign of this is usually a provocative picture as an avatar. The bot follows me, hoping I’ll visit the web site it’s promoting, follow it back, or both.
What is a bot in computer terms that they talk about on the news?
The bots I mentioned before are designed to make money, or save money. But money isn’t the only agenda behind bots. Sometimes they serve a political purpose. These are the bots that people talk about on the news.
Why politically motivated bots exist
A high percentage of accounts on Twitter aren’t humans at all. They’re created and owned by bots. Account names made up of random characters used to be the common tip-off for this, but as people (and Twitter) have gotten smarter, this has become a bit less prevalent. Anyone with a Gmail account knows if you didn’t get in during the first year or two, you ended up with a fairly random name, but there’s a nonrandom element to the name too.
These bots exist to spread propaganda. Years ago, the only way to spread propaganda was to drop leaflets from airplanes. This is expensive, and there’s an element of danger to it.
Using bots on social media is far more effective. Democratic countries use them to attempt to make totalitarian countries more democratic. And totalitarian countries use them to attempt to make democratic countries more totalitarian. Or at least to weaken them or get them to act against their own interests.
How politically motivated bots work
How do politically motivated bots work? Typically, one or more bots posts a message or a meme with a hashtag that its human controller wants to trend. The robots will then swarm, trying to get human attention. Ultimately, the goal is to get humans to believe it and spread it, but more importantly, to remember it.
The ironic thing is that a human originally programmed the bot. But the most successful of these bots then programs humans. When it happens on a large enough scale, it can change the course of society.
The result, in some cases, is that countries will send aid to other countries, while its own citizens will refuse the same thing the country sends abroad.
Bots can be used to sway an election in a particular direction, and those are the attempts that make headlines. But changing the way society thinks and behaves is more subtle and perhaps more effective.
So what is a bot in computer terms? It’s an automated computer program. But just like robots in old movies, their motives can vary widely, from being helpful to being nefarious.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.