Jenny Sussin, an analyst with market research firm Gartner, said she hasn't seen bots used with any strength in favor of or against a particular company, but she has seen them used in online enterprise discussions.
"You can look at any trending topic associated with a particular event or organization and you'll see bots slide in there with typically inappropriate comments," she said. "Those bots work off volume prompts. If something is increasing in frequency of mention, tweet "xyz." Again, because these are all rules-based, they could be used for or against to extend the reach of a message that may or may not be truthful."
It would be easy to set up bots to try to harm a company's reputation by making it appear that real people are complaining about a company's product or making false claims about something a company has done.
Because of that risk, executives need to watch out for bots.
"All you can do is pay attention to the popularity of specific messages," Sussin said. "What messages about your company are being retweeted the most? Where did they originate? All companies can do is try to disprove any false story that would come out about them."
While Olds said he hasn't yet seen any companies using Twitter bots against their competitors, it's not out of the realm of possibility.
"I think companies should take some time to consider exactly what might happen if they had a social media, particularly a Twitter, campaign mounted against them," Olds said. "They need to be ready to investigate the social media claim, then respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible. A negative campaign could pick up traction very quickly with today's social media, and the company in the crosshairs of such a campaign had better be ready to deal with it."
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