Political bots are driving the conversations across social media

Nearly 50 million accounts on Twitter are actually automatically run by bot software. On Facebook, social bots—accounts run by automated software that mimic real users or work to communicate particular information streams—can be used to automate group pages and spread political advertisements. The term ‘fake news’ began with these political bots, yet now the definition seems to have lost its meaning and generalised to all media outlets including TV.

What is political bot?

Bots are software created to imitate human behaviour. A political bot might be programmed to leave supportive comments on a politician’s Facebook page, target journalists with a flood of angry tweets, or engage with a post to artificially inflate its popularity, as part of an SEO (search engine optimisation) campaign. Bots can be programmed to have a single mission: post as much as possible without getting caught. This makes bots a powerful tool for those who wish to shape public opinion by dominating, or guiding, conversation.

Covert political bots are designed to trick and deceive, to convincingly appear to be real people with actual political ideas. Carefully manufactured and managed identities often shaped to mirror that of their target audience. In a world turning to social media for information, they are crucial for political campaigns.

The botnet strategy

Bots in a network, or botnet, deploy different but complementary tactics toward achieving their goal:

  • Sockpuppets (part-human/part-bot or, simply, cyborgs) initiate the conversation, seeding new ideas and driving discussion in online communities.
  • The ideas are then amplified by as many as tens of thousands of automated accounts that we call “amplifier bots,” repurposing, retweeting, and republishing the same language.
  • “Approval bots” engage with specific tweets or comments, “Liking,” “retweeting,” or “replying” to enhance credibility, and give legitimacy to an idea.
  • In hotly contested topic areas, bots are often used to harass and attack individuals and organizations in an attempt to push them out of the conversation.

How will this affect me?

Students in academia are often considered as an ideal target audience for political campaigns. Students ofen use social media — Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more are all popular with the student demographic. And social media is playing an increasingly larger role in elections and how campaigns communicate with voters. An awareness of how social media is targetted is fundamental to anyone regularly using social media.

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