Spam is the Internet's eternal squatter, the unwanted roommate who sees no reason to pay rent, yet borrows the Netflix password and regularly clogs the plumbing. But for whatever reason, we put up with it.
So, when spam gets kicked out, we celebrate—at least, we usually do. In December, when Instagram purged countless spam accounts, users whose popularity depended mainly on their army of followers lamented their loss. They missed the bots. The bots boosted their influence, even if that influence was artificial.
Of course, the bots weren't sophisticated followers these users needed; they had just become part of a new playing field. Social media sites like Instagram had allowed bots to inflate follower counts without incentivizing users to delete or report them. Ignore the bots, and the bots give you more likes and followers—what's wrong with that?
Plenty, said James Caverlee, a computer science professor at Texas A&M who studies the nature of spam on social media. In an email, Caverlee explained the human-bot relationship:
For spammers, there are a multitude of goals—some are aggressively promoting a product, some are trying to spread malware and phishing links, some are promoting some propaganda, some are just adding noise to the system, while others may be trying to build social capital (e.g., by accumulating followers or insinuating their way into your network) for some down-the-road reason.
For individuals, what is the reaction to those actions? Well, if a Twitter user's feed is suddenly filled with low-quality tweets from spam/robot accounts, then I would imagine a strong disincentive to use Twitter any more. But if the bots are engaged in increasing follower counts or favoriting tweets, then I can definitely see users treating that engagement as much more innocuous, if not somewhat favorable.
To him, the new relationship between human users and robot spam isn't just a product of the changing landscape. It's a product of spambots reflecting the way users act online so they can avoid detection and deletion, by adopting a new personality. I'm calling this personality "the confidence bot."