Social networks have played a significant part in political campaigns over the last few years, with parties placing enormous amounts of money behind ultra-targeted ads. On the seedier side of social media campaigning, bots are often used for a number of reasons.
What exactly is a bot ?
At its most basic, a 'bot' is a piece of software which can carry out tasks with little to no human intervention. A bot might be the little window that pops up while you're shopping online or a push notification from an app. Chatbots are designed to interact with humans as naturally as possible and others can be programmed to simply click a button on a web page. These incredibly versatile programmes have vast applications, both good and bad.
Here are 5 examples of how bots have been used in politics.
1: Labour's Tinder Bot
In June 2017, a handful of campaigners created a Tinder chatbot to encourage young Britons to vote for Labour in the UK General Election. Philip Howard of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers said the 'Tinderbot' sent "somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 messages, targeting 18 to 25-year-olds in constituencies where the Labour candidates were running in tight races." Constituencies such as Dudley North, for example, saw Labour win by only 22 votes.
The team behind the bot insists its purpose was to foster democratic participation. However, users were unable to differentiate the bot from real people on the app.
Tinder is a dating app that has become the go-to way to meet individuals. It works by allowing users to swipe right on a profile to confirm attraction or left if they’re not interested. Once two users have both swiped right for each other a window for a private chat becomes accessible.
The bot took advantage of the premium service tinder providers, which allows you to swipe through more suitors, increasing your likeliness of a match. Once the bot had secured matches it began to persuade users to vote for Labour. Yara Rodriques Fowler and Charlotte Goodman, campaigners leading the Tinder bot team, explained that if “the user was voting for a right-wing party or was unsure, the bot sent a list of Labour policies, or a criticism of Tory policies,”
2: Brexit Bots
Brexit has seen the use of bots increase. According to a study in the National Bureau of Economic Research, bot activity on social media increased the Brexit Referendum's 'Leave' vote by approximately 1.76 percent. Although it's important to note that the 1.76 percent increase wouldn't change the plebiscite's outcome, the effects aren’t going by unnoticed. In an article published on 5 May 2018 the National Bureau of Economic Research say: “Overall, our results suggest that the aggressive use of Twitter bots, coupled with the fragmentation of social media and the role of sentiment, could contribute to the vote outcomes.” A social media bot can be described as an agent that communicates autonomously. Their purpose is to influence the course of discussion and potentially change the opinion of its readers.
3: Russia Bots
When the Crimea crisis had just started, between February 2014 and December 2015, 14 million tweets related to Russian politics were collected. A machine learning algorithm found that around 45 per cent of accounts with more than ten tweets were bots.
4: Botception: 2016 US Election Bots
Social bots seem to have been significant in influencing voters during the 2016 United States presidential election. With an estimated 9-15 percent of active Twitter accounts being bots, moreover, 15% of the total Twitter population active in the US election discussion were bots.
A study was conducted, looking into the digital traces of political manipulation. An algorithm deciphered Russian troll accounts and analysed the users that had been duped into retweeting their posts. They found that about 4.9% and 6.2% of liberal and conservative users respectively were bots.
5: The rise in political bot-powered social media campaigns
From 2017—2018 the number of countries engaged in formally organised social media manipulation campaigns almost doubled, from 28 nations to 48. Samantha Bradshaw co-authored the report, stating that “the majority of growth comes from political parties who spread disinformation and junk news around election periods. There are more political parties learning from the strategies deployed during Brexit and the US 2016 Presidential election: more campaigns are using bots, junk news, and disinformation to polarise and manipulate voters.”
Want to know more about bots and how they work? Read our six-part series here: All you’ve ever wanted to know about social media bots.