A primer on political bots: Part one

Stuart W. Shulman et al at Data Driven Journalism: “The rise of political bots brings into sharp focus the role of automated social media accounts in today’s democratic civil society. Events during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election revealed the scale of this issue for the first time to the majority of citizens and policy-makers. At the same time, the deployment of Russian-linked bots designed to promote pro-gun laws in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting demonstrates the state-sponsored, real-time readiness to shape, through information warfare, the dominant narratives on platforms such as Twitter. The regular news reports on these issues lead us to conclude that the foundations of democracy have become threatened by the presence of aggressive and socially disruptive bots, which aim to manipulate online political discourse.

While there is clarity on the various functions that bot accounts can be scripted to perform, as described below, the task of accurately defining this phenomenon and identifying bot accounts remains a challenge. At Texifter, we have endeavoured to bring nuance to this issue through a research project which explores the presence of automated accounts on Twitter. Initially, this project concerned itself with an attempt to identify bots which participated in online conversations around the prevailing cryptocurrency phenomenon. This article is the first in a series of three blog posts produced by the researchers at Texifter that outlines the contemporary phenomenon of Twitter bots….

Bots in their current iteration have a relatively short, albeit rapidly evolving history. Initially constructed with non-malicious intentions, it wasn’t until the late 1990s with the advent of Web 2.0 when bots began to develop a more negative reputation. Although bots have been used maliciously in denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, spam emails, and mass identity theft, their purpose is not explicitly to incite mayhem.

Before the most recent political events, bots existed in chat rooms, operated as automated customer service agents on websites, and were a mainstay on dating websites. This familiar form of the bot is known to the majority of the general population as a “chatbot” – for instance, CleverBot was and still is a popular platform to talk to an “AI”. Another prominent example was Microsoft’s failed Twitter Chatbot Tay which made headlines in 2016 when “her” vocabulary and conversation functions were manipulated by Twitter users until “she” espoused neo-nazi views when “she” was subsequently deleted.

Image: XKCD Comic #632.

A Twitter bot is an account controlled by an algorithm or script, which is typically hosted on a cloud platform such as Heroku. They are typically, though not exclusively, scripted to conduct repetitive tasks.  For example, there are bots that retweet content containing particular keywords, reply to new followers, and direct messages to new followers; although they can be used for more complex tasks such as participating in online conversations. Bot accounts make up between 9 and 15% of all active accounts on Twitter; however, it is predicted that they account for a much greater percentage of total Twitter traffic. Twitter bots are generally not created with malicious intent; they are frequently used for online chatting or for raising the professional profile of a corporation – but their ability to pervade our online experience and shape political discourse warrants heightened scrutiny….(More)”.