Good bots vs bad bots: In elections, who decides what?

Despite bot-centric election campaigns trying to influence voters, good bots are also helping them make enlightened choices

By Kiran N. Kumar

US elections in 2016 showed how Twitter bots tried to influence the poll in favor of Donald Trump and similar social media bots countered his campaign at every point and worked against him in 2020.

From the days of former President Barack Obama using social media to reach out to voters in 2008, elections in the US started relying heavily on social media platforms and bots have become an integral part and now an imminent choice.

Emilio Ferrara, a researcher at the USC Information Sciences Institute, then warned that the robots can overtake political debates as never before.

Read: Can a robot be an inventor? ‘No,’ says a US judge (October 7, 2021)

“Software robots (bots) masquerading as humans are influencing the political discourse on social media as never before and could threaten the very integrity of the 2016 US Presidential elections.”

It was estimated that about 400,000 bots were engaged in the political discussion about the presidential election, sending out roughly 3.8 million tweets, or about one-fifth of the entire conversation.

The bots were able to do so by stealing online pictures, giving fictitious names, and cloning biographical information from existing accounts.

So sophisticated these bots were that they could “tweet, retweet, share content, comment on posts, ‘like’ candidates, grow their social influence by following legit human accounts and even engage in human-like conversations.”

Twitter alone found that more than 50,000 Russia-linked bots were active on its network during the 2016 election, reaching more than 1.4 million Americans.

A study by Yale University in 2020 found that these accounts were automated as the code detects tweets and retweets them automatically, running 24 hours a day, far more active than a human being.

Certain kinds of content were amplified based on pro-Trump or pro-Biden group to basically make it seem like there are more people talking about a topic than there actually are.

If you are advocating for an issue, and not many people are talking about it, then use bots to create the illusion that there is considerable traction. And bots have also evolved enormously since 2008 to make it difficult to detect that they are not humans.

Beyond bots, trolling is another latest trend, while disinformation remains a permanent challenge during elections. “One thing that gets lost is disinformation and online media manipulation in 2020 does not look the way it looked in 2008 and even 2016,” says Zarine Kharazian, an assistant editor at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab.

As trolls have become the norm since the run-up to the 2020 election, cybersecurity experts warn that the bots are playing a secondary role amplifying them.

“Overwhelmingly, we see much of the disinformation, vastly more of the disinformation, is produced by US sources,” said Timothy Frye, a Columbia University political science professor. “And what we see Russian sources doing is amplifying them.”

Good bots here to stay
Despite the bot-centric election campaigns either increasing or limiting the access of one candidate over the other, there are good bots which make a voter enlightened about social and economic issues ahead of voting.

If a voter is interested in the country’s economic situation, for instance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be useful to know what each party has to say about an economic issue.

Read: The next-generation bots interfering with the US election (October 28, 2020)

Similarly, political leaders can leverage AI bots to listen to what their voters have to say. AI bots can analyze the online behavior of voters whether data consumption patterns, relationships, social media patterns, unique psychographic and behavioral user profiles among others.

Based on bots and the insights gleaned from them, poll campaigners can deploy micro-targeting advertisements or messages to educate voters based on their individual psychology and on a variety of political issues to persuade them to vote for the party that meets their expectations.

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