Chatbots Are a Danger to Democracy

Jamie Susskind in the New York Times: “As we survey the fallout from the midterm elections, it would be easy to miss the longer-term threats to democracy that are waiting around the corner. Perhaps the most serious is political artificial intelligence in the form of automated “chatbots,” which masquerade as humans and try to hijack the political process.

Chatbots are software programs that are capable of conversing with human beings on social media using natural language. Increasingly, they take the form of machine learning systems that are not painstakingly “taught” vocabulary, grammar and syntax but rather “learn” to respond appropriately using probabilistic inference from large data sets, together with some human guidance.

Some chatbots, like the award-winning Mitsuku, can hold passable levels of conversation. Politics, however, is not Mitsuku’s strong suit. When asked “What do you think of the midterms?” Mitsuku replies, “I have never heard of midterms. Please enlighten me.” Reflecting the imperfect state of the art, Mitsuku will often give answers that are entertainingly weird. Asked, “What do you think of The New York Times?” Mitsuku replies, “I didn’t even know there was a new one.”

Most political bots these days are similarly crude, limited to the repetition of slogans like “#LockHerUp” or “#MAGA.” But a glance at recent political history suggests that chatbots have already begun to have an appreciable impact on political discourse. In the buildup to the midterms, for instance, an estimated 60 percent of the online chatter relating to “the caravan” of Central American migrants was initiated by chatbots.

In the days following the disappearance of the columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Arabic-language social media erupted in support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was widely rumored to have ordered his murder. On a single day in October, the phrase “we all have trust in Mohammed bin Salman” featured in 250,000 tweets. “We have to stand by our leader” was posted more than 60,000 times, along with 100,000 messages imploring Saudis to “Unfollow enemies of the nation.” In all likelihood, the majority of these messages were generated by chatbots.

Chatbots aren’t a recent phenomenon. Two years ago, around a fifth of all tweets discussing the 2016 presidential election are believed to have been the work of chatbots. And a third of all traffic on Twitter before the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union was said to come from chatbots, principally in support of the Leave side….

We should also be exploring more imaginative forms of regulation. Why not introduce a rule, coded into platforms themselves, that bots may make only up to a specific number of online contributions per day, or a specific number of responses to a particular human? Bots peddling suspect information could be challenged by moderator-bots to provide recognized sources for their claims within seconds. Those that fail would face removal.

We need not treat the speech of chatbots with the same reverence that we treat human speech. Moreover, bots are too fast and tricky to be subject to ordinary rules of debate. For both those reasons, the methods we use to regulate bots must be more robust than those we apply to people. There can be no half-measures when democracy is at stake….(More)”.