Political bots – ‘propaganda powerhouse’ threatens democracy


Bots airing pro-Kremlin views have flooded the Russian-language portion of the social media platform Twitter, in what researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project  say is an effort to scuttle political discussion and opposition coordination in Russia, The Washington Post’s Andrew Roth reports:

In a new study of “political bots” on the social media platform, the sheer scale of automation is staggering: Of a sample 1.3 million accounts tweeting regularly about politics in Russia reviewed by researchers between 2014 and 2015, around 45 percent, or 585,000 of them, were bots. So if you were to mention or enter a flame war with a random account from that sample, there would be a nearly 1-in-2 chance you’re not communicating with a real person….Those Internet campaigns are a threat to democracy, the authors claim.

“For democracy to work, voters need to have high quality information,” said Philip Howard, professor of Internet studies at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Social media could provide that. But at the moment, it looks pretty bleak.”

The research suggests that social media is a propaganda powerhouse as bots are able to “manufacture consensus by artificially amplifying traffic around a political candidate or issue.”

“Armies of bots built to follow, retweet, or like a candidate’s content make that candidate seem more legitimate, more widely supported, than they actually are… the illusion of online support for a candidate can spur actual support through a bandwagon effect.”

Russia was ahead of the game in recognizing and operationalizing this terrain, and the Kremlin developed its information warfare capacity in order to undermine a vibrant, pro-democratic domestic blogosphere before going transnational, OII’s Howard told a meeting at the National Democratic Institute.

In Russia itself, about 45% of politics-focused Twitter accounts were highly automated, “essentially reproducing government propaganda,” the BBC adds, noting that the OII’s researchers believe that “computational propaganda is now one of the most powerful tools against democracy“.

“Regimes use political bots, built to look and act like real citizens, in an effort to silence opponents and push official state messaging,” the report adds.

“The report is basically showing the militarisation of the internet in many ways,” Carl Miller, research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos told WIRED. “It’s finishing the narrative from the late 90s and noughties where we saw the growth of forums that went under the radar for quite a long time for mobilizing political discussion. After the Arab Spring, it became clear how important social media would be for the politics of the future. Now a lot of states, as well as private sector actors, have moved in and worked out how to manipulate stuff online.”

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