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 say is an effort to scuttle political discussion and opposition coordination in Russia.
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.
The study, released on Monday by the Computational Propaganda Research Project housed at the the Oxford Internet Institute, investigates the manipulation of public opinion through automated processes on social media in nine countries: China, Russia, Poland, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Ukraine, Taiwan, and the United States. The research was backed by U.S. and EU government grants.
It shows, to varying degrees, how regimes, parties and politicians have repurposed social media accounts to direct streams of abuse against domestic rivals or foreign foes, quickly build massive political followings, game metrics on social media, or create bots to create more bots.
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 and the project’s principal investigator, in an interview. “Social media could provide that. But at the moment, it looks pretty bleak.”
Some of the surprising findings: right-wing bots in Poland outnumber those on the left by a factor of two to one. In China, automation is more widely used by pro-democracy agitators than by the government.
Taken together, the studies point to a significant update in the narrative around social media: once seen as a tool of democratization and protest, like as, for instance, during the Arab Spring, it has increasingly become a weapon wielded by established political actors and authoritarian regimes, simulating public opinion through memes and hashtag democracy.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Andrew Roth