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Disrupting Democracy: The Rise of Political Bots

/Policy recently hosted a discussion with Sam Wooley and Philip Howard, the world’s leading experts on the use of bots in politics. They say that bots can be good for democracy, but for the most part they are being used to muddy political issues, choke civic conversations, and get around election law.

It is estimated that 60 percent of all online traffic is automated. On Twitter, alone, there are 20 million bot accounts. We’re used to the idea that bots try to sell us things, skim our personal info or boost our social profiles.

These days, they’re getting political. Take, for example, the hundreds of rabid pro-Donald Trump Twitter accounts with zero followers undermining rival candidates’ campaign operations. In Ecuador, three major media sites were brought down by DDoS attacks minutes after it was reported that the government may have been working with Hacking Team. And although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called Twitter “the worst menace to society,” he has deployed an army of 18,000 bots on the platform to promote his own party.

Bots can be used to propagandize, create confusion and muck up elections. They can also help spread breaking news, empower activists and drive political innovation.

Here is an excerpt from the discussion:

bluecup
Have there been any political decisions that show the power of bots?
Like, something highly influenced by them?

samuelwoolley
We’ve seen government actors in these countries, from politicians to executive leaders to defense departments, using bots to hinder opposition, tweet out bogus information (causing manufactured panics or rumors), attack journos

Turkey: http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/24867/think-erdogan-will-delete-his-18k-strong-twitter-bot-army-quest-wipe-out-twitter

There is a good case in South Korea, where bots were thought to really influence the outcome of the last prez election

bluecup
😮 😮

samuelwoolley
the security chief there was the leader of the propaganda bots that supported the woman who won the election

he is now in jail

bluecup
That’s insane, never thought they’d have so much power

samuelwoolley
good piece on the SK case:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/world/asia/former-spy-chief-in-south-korea-sentenced-in-election-case.html?_r=0

pnhoward
they have power when the conditions are right, usually when the national security services of some country are spending time and money on pushing a message

nish
@bluecup: He who controls the media, controls public opinion

we are seeing the same trend in establishment media

samuelwoolley
@nish that’s certainly the idea

nish
You pump enough bs and people start to believe it

samuelwoolley
yep…an extension of traditional propaganda

bluecup
Yep, but never looked at them from that side

samuelwoolley
but…it’s important to say that Political strategy teams treat social media outreach and manipulation differently

About our guests:

Phil Howard is a Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Washington. Samuel Woolley is a doctoral researcher at the University of Washington. You can read their latest article on bots and the US presidential election in the May 2016 issue of Wired Magazine. Additional work and research information is available at politicalbots.org.

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