2016 Elections and Twitter: Rise of the Political bot #44 #cong16

By Max Hastings.

We live in a continually expanding world of technological integration. Virtual and augmented realities immerse users into visual and auditory sensory experiences so we can escape the sometimes mundane reality we exist within. The concept of a credible and functional artificial intelligence was up till recently resigned to the category of science fiction, however now the prospect of it seems to be close, a decade away if that. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have dominated the way we relay and consume information within this digital age. Political strategist and campaign managers understand the power that social media platforms hold, and the influence they can have over the general publics perception of the truth.

2016 has been a year of tumultuous political debate and shock results on both sides of the Atlantic. The democratic systems of the United Kingdom and the United States have both been put to the test. Brexit dominated the summer headlines in Europe resulting in a scrappy display of how immature two party politics can get and the US election taking its place in the autumn mesmerising and polarising right up to the last minute as the world watched aghast as a reality television star became the 45th president of the United States of America. Donald Trump has epitomised the power and scope of the 21st century American dream, displaying what personal wealth and a Twitter account can do. The ideals of “hope” and “change” that were instilled into the public psyche during the Obama years have been dismantled and replaced with a cynicism toward the establishment and political system by Trump that is before unseen, not to mention the first lady and her dubious early career choices. Interesting times we live in.

The unnerving correlation between Brexit and the US elections is the emergence of the political bot. The use of “bots”, automated software applications that perform procedures such as setting up fake user accounts, writing posts on Twitter to boost followers and likes for a page and propagating whatever information that they are designed to promote at an inhuman rate of output, is ever increasing. A study carried out by Oxford University showed that during the American election one in four tweets surrounding the third televised debate came from a bot account. A separate study carried out by the same institution shows half a million tweets for the pro-Leave campaign were generated in a 7 day period running up to the Brexit vote in June by bot accounts. Presidential races and EU referendums are battles of attrition, in which the political landscapes and battlegrounds have changed, as have the forces fighting the battles. They are propaganda wars fought through hash tags and carpet spamming. The numbers show that Hillary Clinton was outnumbered in this online war 7 to 1 by highly automated Trump accounts in the Oxford University study mentioned previously. Other figures from the Computational Propaganda Program estimate that 50% of Clintons Twitter activity can be traced to bot accounts with a staggering 80% of Trumps. Political bots are a digital mercenary of sorts, indifferent to what tasks they perform focused only on carrying out their creators wishes. The precious resources being fought over are votes. 

Both campaigns were focused on highly charged issues of immigration and personal sovereignty, bringing the power back to the working people and protecting jobs from foreign migrant invaders. Trends have shown that left leaning Twitter users are more likely to share posts from accounts with opposing viewpoints, sharing the outrage with the like minded. Right leaning users are more likely to use social media as a validating platform to express their views with others sharing their mindsets, a process called homophily describes this social interaction, or in simpler terms birds of a feather. The lines become blurred when you introduce bot accounts creating hateful discourse. These fake automated posts are the snow flake that gains momentum and becomes the avalanche, easing the process of inciting hate by saying it first so real user accounts don’t have to. Online AI Iago’s quietly manipulating opinions within the echo chamber of social media without the knowledge of the participating public. 

This period in digital history will be looked back upon, in my opinion, as the wild west frontier era of the internet. Where activities were not regulated and boundaries were not yet drawn on what was deemed acceptable practice. Novelty of practice allows for moral ambiguity in relation to certain methodologies. In the twenty years or so that the internet has been around as the revolutionary tool that it is now,  effective regulatory steps are only in the last 5 years becoming realities in the areas of piracy and file sharing. Legal loopholes and networks of young programmers that in reality know more about the inner workings of the internet than the governments trying to regulate it will always make it a battleground for the ideals of total freedom and total control. The political propaganda machines of large government have well and truly caught up. The official line from governments is denial of using bots, however the growing usage of bots as a tool to flood social media with the mantra of political agenda is not being stopped. Reports from programmers who have sold bots to clients for use in thepolitical sphere say that Twitter accounts are set up in secrecy using untraceable mobile phones. It will be interesting to see how much of a part they play in the coming years. Will regulations be implemented or will they remain as the dirty trick up the campaign sleeve? Only time will tell. 

© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie