Let’s Hear it for the Bots

Bots have always been part of alt-right/fake news conversations but this week, they went mainstream. Hillary Clinton talked about bots extensively during her Code 2017 keynote. Meanwhile, a news story claiming the Trump had gained nearly 5 million bot twitter followers seemingly overnight was reported and quickly debunked.

Trump and other celebrities have a heavy amount of Twitter users that are in fact bots, not real people. If you’re on Twitter, you probably have bots following you as well, though likely not in as high a number or percentage as President Trump or a celebrity like Britney Spears.

My favorite bots. From Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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Bots play a crucial role in the weaponization of fake news and propaganda. We know that the Russians have been deploying them in America since 2014 and that they’ve been deployed in Europe as well, most famously during this year’s French election. The best description of where bots fit into the frog squad’s activities that I’ve seen is Andrew Weisburd, Clint Watts, and JM Berger’s article on Russia’s strategy to influence the American Election and ultimately destroy our democracy, published just two days before the U.S. election:

A small army of social media operatives — a mix of Russian-controlled accounts, useful idiots, and innocent bystanders — are deployed to promote all of this material to unknowing audiences. Some of these are real people, others are bots, and some present themselves as innocent news aggregators, providing “breaking news alerts” to happenings worldwide or in specific cities. The latter group is a key tool for moving misinformation and disinformation from primarily Russian-influenced circles into the general social media population. We saw this phenomenon at play in recent reports of a second military coup in Turkey and unsubstantiated reports of an active shooter that led to the shutdown of JFK Airport. Some news aggregators may be directly controlled by Russia, while other aggregators that use algorithmic collection may be the victims of manipulation.

Reading this article really helped me understand what I’d observed online in 2016. The Clinton campaign was unable to break through on social media using the tactics we’d employed on the Obama reelect during debates, speeches, and other key moments. Additionally, the abuse I and others were subjected to online was so much more intense than anything I’d ever experienced. Democrats were drowned out on social media, and the press — who obsessively cover what people are saying on social media now — bore witness to what they largely assumed was happening organically online.

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Clint Watts also testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and made that point that President Trump has both benefitted from bots, and is a frequent target of bot campaigns. Watts testified that “gray outlets” tweet propaganda and disinformation at Trump with high volume at times when he’s known to be online. I assume that bots target other U.S. elected officials and world leaders in the same way, though I would also assume that none spend as much time on Twitter or are as susceptible to these tactics as Donald Trump.

The political operative in me can’t help but be impressed by this weaponization. So much of my work on campaigns involved building online communities and deploying them in large numbers at key moments. But you can’t control 100,000 human supporters on Twitter or keep them 100% on message. You can however do that with bots, and if the bot accounts seem realistic enough to pass as people, you can also create false enthusiasm and support for reporters and pundits.

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Further Reading: If you want to better understand the mechanics of a botnet, Ben Nimmo’s piece for DFRLab is a good place to start. Renee DiResta’s article at ribbonfarm is also helpful for understanding how the presence of bots affects the marketplace of ideas. Slate covers where tech companies are failing on transparency about bots to the public. Farhad Manjoo has a piece in The New York Times breaking down how Twitter as a social network is especially prone to bot manipulation.


The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back.

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Melissa Ryan

Politics + technology. Author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter. Subscribe here: https://goo.gl/c74Vva. Coffee drinker. Kentucky basketball fan.