Attempting to answer the question posed by the title of this column requires us to reflect on moral goods and moral evils—on laws, duties, and norms, on actions and their consequences. In this Viewpoint, we draw on information systems ethics6,7 to present Bot Ethics, a procedure the general social media community can use to decide whether the actions of social bots are unethical. We conclude with a consideration of culpability.
Social bots are computer algorithms in online social networks.8 They can share messages, upload pictures, and connect with many users on social media. Social bots are more common than people often think.a Twitter has approximately 23 million of them, accounting for 8.5% of total users; and Facebook has an estimated 140 million social bots, which are between 5.5%−1.2% total users.b,c Almost 27 million Instagram users (8.2%) are estimated to be social bots.d LinkedIn and Tumblr also have significant social bot activity.e,f Sometimes their activity on these networks can be innocuous or even beneficial. For example, SF QuakeBotg performs a useful service by disseminating information about earthquakes, as they happen, in the San Francisco Bay area. However, in other situations, social bots can behave quite unethically.