As if there were not enough landmines lurking in the social media environment, a news analysis  in yesterday’s New York Times highlighted one of the less obvious but no less dangerous types. Socialbots, as the Times labels them, are programs intended to influence, for good or ill, the impact of social media for the benefit of whoever sees fit to deploy them. In the Times’s words:

Now come socialbots. These automated charlatans are programmed to tweet and retweet. They have quirks, life histories and the gift of gab. Many of them have built-in databases of current events, so they can piece together phrases that seem relevant to their target audience. They have sleep-wake cycles so their fakery is more convincing, making them less prone to repetitive patterns that flag them as mere programs. Some have even been souped up by so-called persona management software…Researchers say this new breed of bots is being designed not just with greater sophistication but also with grander goals: to sway elections, to influence the stock market, to attack governments, even to flirt with people and one another.

These new creatures require vigilance where social media policy and procedures are concerned because they can have an effect on a company’s reputation. An example in the times that relates to Mexican politics could just as easily been perpetrated by one firm against another.

Other bots have more underhanded ambitions. Last year, officials from Mexico’s governing Institutional Revolutionary Party were accused of using bots to sabotage the party’s critics by appropriating some of their hashtags and flooding Twitter with identical posts, designed to trip Twitter’s spam filter. Believing the posts to be spam, Twitter soon began blocking those hashtags entirely, temporarily silencing the critics, which was exactly what the government officials intended.

And message manipulation isn’t the only problem. A recent post on Microsoft’s Malware Protection Center site entitled “Rise of the Social Bots”  pointed out that they are increasingly seeing “…more and more cases of malware stealing passwords, spreading, and posting malicious links through social media networks.”

That familiar but not necessarily inexpensive practice of Eternal Vigilance is the price of freedom from these sorts of attacks. Detecting, disabling and combatting the threats posed by socialbots is one more cost that must be factored into a comprehensive social media program for any financial services firm inclined to join the fray.

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