Editorial by Jay Stephens
Donald J. Trump’s overwhelming electoral college victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States has shaken the world. Mainstream media pollsters, pundits, and programs were almost unanimously incorrect when it came to gauging the true voter support for Donald Trump. So what tipped the election in his favor? The answer may be robots.
A new study from USC has found that algorithmically-controlled “bots” had a significant influence over the online political discourse this election season. Using data collected over a one month period from 20.7 million tweets and 2.8 million individual Twitter accounts, researchers found that 19% of all tweets (3.8 million) were made by bots and that 15% of all accounts (400,000) were bots. Both the pro-Trump and pro-Clinton bots were ineffective at directly communicating with humans, and actually ended up talking amongst themselves more often than not. But when it came to retweeting content, humans and bots shared each other’s tweets at roughly the same rate and did not distinguish between one another. Since there were more pro-Trump bots than pro-Clinton bots, the authors of the study – and even the conservative media – suggested this meant that grassroots support for Donald Trump was an artificially generated illusion.
Judging by the election results, this is untrue. Nonetheless, the influence that artificial intelligence may have on the fervor of political discourse is worth exploring.
The primary mode for sharing information on Twitter is through retweets. If content from bots and humans are given the same weight, we create the potential for bots to become a trusted source of information. Being able to distinguish between a human tweet and a bot tweet will be increasingly essential if we wish to avoid programmed manipulation. The study makes note of this troubling reality, discussing how groups might be able to exert undetectable influence over us with bots:
Governments, organizations, and other entities with sufficient resources, can obtain the technological capabilities to deploy thousands of social bots and use them to their advantage, either to support or to attack particular political figures or candidates. Indeed, it has become increasingly simpler to deploy social bots, so that, in some cases, no coding skills are required to setup accounts that perform simple automated activities: tech blogs often post tutorials and ready-to-go tools for this purposes , , .
This concern has serious merit. In 2014, a review of documents taken from the NSA by Edward Snowden revealed how the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) monitored activity on sites like YouTube in real time. Glenn Greenwald detailed how governments were actively infiltrating the internet to manipulate, deceive, and destroy reputations. Is it unreasonable to believe they would transcend human help in the pursuit of these goals? Considering the vastness and ubiquity of the internet landscape, it seems realistic to assume that covert groups would utilize programmable tools like bots to sway public opinion.
The study suggests that this intermingling of bots and humans presents three potential societal repercussions:
The presence social bots in online political discussion can create three tangible issues: first, influence can be redistributed across suspicious accounts that may be operated with malicious purposes; second, the political conversation can become further polarized; third, the spreading of misinformation and unverified information can be enhanced. as far as to say that “social media bots can indeed negatively affect democratic political discussion rather than improving it, which in turn can potentially alter public opinion and endanger the integrity of the Presidential election.
When engaging in political discourse online, stay vigilant: be aware of who you are communicating with, how it makes you feel feel, and how accurate the information is. The fabric of reality is fragile and at stake. Even if the bots have a good point, we must be guard ourselves from artificial persuasion and engage only with one another. Amplifying the voices of bots as equal or greater than our own sets a terrible precedent for the future of free human speech.
Pay attention to what you retweet. If you believe what the bots say too much, you might just Make America Great Again.