I Chat, Therefore I Am The Unreal Citizens of the Social Web

Photo: Rog01 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/maitreyoda/7856293086/)

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How much do our social lives include our robot pals? I’m going to assume very little, except for a niche group of people (and, hey: no judgment). And while robots may feature minimally in our social spheres offline, this isn’t the case online. In fact, a great number of the accounts we’ll encounter in our online lives will be powered by automation to some extent; from fully automated bots to code-assisted human operators to code that allows us to simply schedule or target our social media content.

This isn’t restricted to the novelty of Microsoft’s Tay (may she rest in peace, after predictably becoming racist), functional bots, designed to do perform simple tasks like @DearAssistant, or the laser-focused simplicity of @FuckEveryWord, which does exactly what you’d expect. Research from the University of California earlier this year estimated the proportion of non-human Twitter accounts between 9-15% (Varol et al, 2017). That’s a huge volume of code inhabiting our online social spaces and public spheres, and this has implications for how we conduct ourselves individually and collectively online.

While the banes of spam and email scams have plagued internet users for as long as we’ve able to communicate with each other online, the rise of automated bot accounts presents a new landscape of opportunity and challenges.

The beneficial implications for the rest of us fleshy social media users is a host of useful and entertaining services and accounts, getting cleverer by the day. Being able to order a pizza by bot, or read poetry crafted by algorithms can make for a more colourful online world. And the potential of automated services to assist us in our online social lives is great; could bots be our digital butlers, personal assistants, translators and community police? But there is a dark side to community of bots co-habitating with us. Although much of the bot population on social media may cause mere inconvenience to us, the activity of bots and automated accounts online can have real world implications. A recent news article cited a University of Oxford study positing that bots accounted for one third of pro-Trump Twitter activity on the night of the US election and the four days afterwards, or around 576,178 tweets.

In an age when raw numbers can influence visibility, the trending of topics and the distribution of information and news (and considering the US President’s obsession with popularity, ratings and crowd sizes), it becomes clear that automated accounts make a substantial difference to flows of information in our social networks. There is even evidence to suggest that governments have also used floods of bot-generated content to overwhelm activist and protest activity. In the context of national governments investing in cybersecurity, the impact on free speech and the consequent threat to democracy of a compromised public sphere, political conscious citizens have every reason to be concerned at the influence of algorithms with murky agendas. There is clearly a need for social media platforms to rapidly and emphatically improve their systems to control for the activities of automated accounts, and to mitigate for the worst of them. Users alone can’t deal with this issue, as it can be difficult to even properly quantify; how do you accurately determine which accounts are bots and which aren’t (Shaffer 2017)? This can make dealing with bots a classic game of whack-a-mole; as soon as you’ve dealt with one, another pops up (Digital Forensic Research Lab 2017). This is if you can even tell that you’re not dealing with a person (Shah & Warwick 2017).

Bots and automated accounts are almost certainly going to remain a feature of our social media landscape into the future. Automation, natural language processing (NLP), machine learning and big data hold vast potential to improve our online lives, facilitate our interactions and assist us. But we must remain alert and active in addressing the challenges posed as well; our safety, speech, rights and wellbeing is paramount, and must not be threatened by our automated brethren.

Image: Sabrina Gelbart, CC0 (https://www.pexels.com/photo/full-frame-shot-of-abstract-pattern-249798/)

References

Clark, B 2017, Study: Bots accounted for a third of pro-Trump Twitter activity during last year’s debates, The Next Web, 29 July, retrieved 30 July 2017, <https://thenextweb.com/artificial-intelligence/2017/07/28/study-bots-accounted-for-a-third-of-all-pro-trump-twitter-activity-during-the-debate/#.tnw_aw9SZpEg>.

Digital Forensic Research Lab 2017, The Many Faces of a Botnet, Medium, 25 May, retrieved 31 July 2017, <https://medium.com/dfrlab/the-many-faces-of-a-botnet-c1a66658684>.

Dominos, ‘Facebook Messenger Bot’, retrieved 20 July 2017, <https://www.dominos.com.au/inside-dominos/technology/messenger-bot>.

Perez S 2016, Microsoft silences its new A.I. bot Tay, after Twitter users teach it racism [Updated], Tech Crunch, 24 March, retrieved 28 July 2017, <https://techcrunch.com/2016/03/24/microsoft-silences-its-new-a-i-bot-tay-after-twitter-users-teach-it-racism/>.

Shaffer, K 2017, Spot a Bot: Identifying Automation and Disinformation on Social Media, Medium, 6 June, retrieved 24 July 2017, <https://medium.com/data-for-democracy/spot-a-bot-identifying-automation-and-disinformation-on-social-media-2966ad93a203>.

Shah, H, Warwick, K, How the ‘Good Life’ is threatened in Cyberspace, University of Reading, retrieved 28 July 2017, <http://www.academia.edu/2380537/How_the_Good_Life_is_Threatened_in_Cyberspace>.

Varol, O, Ferrara, E, Davis, C, Menczer, F, Flammini, A 2017, Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation and Characterization, The 11th International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, Montreal, retrieved 30 July 2017, <https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.03107.pdf>.

11 Comments

  1. Hi Jez,
    Great read! I have read a lot about bots being used by businesses on Instagram to increase followers and engagement but not to the extent of pushing political agendas. The heading and tagline was interesting while being relevant to the blog. The style of your writing made it easy to read and maintained a well organised flow throughout the piece. Some technical issues.. For submission, as I am sure you are aware, you would need to media such as pictures and tweets. Also, you have hyperlinked to a scholarly article so just the proper referencing conventions is needed. Lastly, in regards to the word limit maybe an infographic (make them free on canva) about bots & political agendas so we don’t miss out on any juicy pieces of information.
    Look forward to reading more on the inner workings of social media!
    Sian
    Ps. Make sure your hyperlinks go in a new window (for Emma’s sake!)

    • Thanks for the read and the comment Sian! It’s definitely an area that’s only going to get more attention in future (for better and worse). And thanks for the tips: really helpful. As you’ve guessed, I’ve left jamming in the submission-required elements until later (I’m a big fan of the Ernest Hemingway-type approach: write drunk, edit sober), but I’ll confess I did totally forget about setting link targets to new windows!

  2. Hi Jez, thanks for the interesting post in an area I know not much about! I am guilty of going along online without much critical thinking about whether others interacting are actually in the ‘flesh’ or not. Thanks for providing an introduction to the topic and links to useful related articles for more information. I look forward to seeing some media (tweets, videos, images, infographics) added to your post. And as mentioned by Sian, don’t forget to set links to open in a new tab, Adam has a very helpful video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJzH4skd_70&feature=youtu.be Although I’m not sure I can set that to open in a new tab via this comment box!

    • Thanks Eva! It’s an interesting subject area, and while it’s been easy not to think about it much in the past, I think it’s only going to get bigger and more obvious in the future. Thanks for the tips and checking out my post!

  3. A thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read. You’ve succeeded in painting a good picture of the issue, complete with excellent real world examples, which I found interesting, and a little scary! 9-15% of twitter accounts not human, poetry by algorithm, as a relative newcomer to the increasing role of bots in our lives, these are quite eye-opening.
    Personally I’m quite interested in how governments and others can use bot-generated content to counter the efforts of people agitating for change. In my ‘Instrument of change blog’, I looked at how social media can help create social change – and there are some great examples of that – but the flipside to that is how those that are the subject of pressure to change (governments, corporates) can use automatically generated content over social media to counter/overwhelm the voice of the people. This is a critical area for those that agitate and mobilise for change would be well served to understand, and a great area for further focus.
    Thanks again for the great read!

    • Thanks Emily – appreciate the read and the feedback. It’s definitely an interesting area that’s only going to get more prominent in our digital lives. While a lot of the bot activity that’s out to interfere with our digital citizenship is pretty ‘blunt’ at the moment (overwhelming positive or negative noise with little actual content or persuasion), it’s getting a lot more sophisticated by the day. We’ll see how this pans out (for better or worse!). Thanks again for taking a look at my post!

  4. Your writing style is excellent – conversational and engaging. Your argument is clear and well supported. Just a thought, for academic blogs you also need to provide in-text referencing, plus a list of references at the end of your blog. Your embedded links were very effective, providing extra weight to your argument (as previously mentioned they need to open in a new tab). Some extra images to break up the text would work wonders and an embedded tweet (or two) may have further expanded your discussion. I enjoyed your blog immensely, thank you!

    • Thanks Karen – appreciate the kind comments! You’re spot on with the referencing etc, which I’ve added in as I used this post for submission, as well as some additional content to break up the text. Hope you’ve also had success with your first submission!

  5. Hi Jez,
    Interesting topic, you never quite know who (or what) is behind certain online content. Profiles could be a completely made up avatar, or it could be a robot. The next question is, what’s the effect? Are thy to influence, as your example with the pro-Trump tweets, or to gather information for market research, policy influence etc? On top of that, it would be interesting to explore how the bot influence effects public opinion, which in turn can actually influence political and social change! A chicken or the egg kind of conundrum.

    Great examples and embedded tweets, a very fun read. I would have loved a link on the ‘read poetry by algorithms’ too! I saw a few mentions of this, but don’t forget to embed, reference and link to a CC image! 🙂
    Jess

  6. Hi Jez,

    Interesting title, that’s the first thing that caught my attention to read your blog (good job with that). It was a good read and nice writing style; it’s true that automated bots are taking over the social web. Most websites, even banking have CAPTCHA, an additional security code linked to test and identify if it’s a human or a robot. That being said, I just got a creative suggestion for your blog title, an idea to spark it up “The Rise of the Autobots: The Battle of the Web” (something like that, make sure you do it in the ‘Transformers Text style’ haha).

    Also, if you intend to use this post for academic purpose, I felt you should add in a few more pictures to meet the criteria apart from the embedded tweets. Overall, I felt your blog was well knit. Your sources were hyperlinked (thanks! gave me additional information) and your visual presentation (blog design) was simple and professional. Look forward to your next post.

  7. Hi Jez,

    When I noticed your post title a while back, I made a mental note to get back to read it. The title is engaging and memorable. I am concerned about what you discuss, particularly ‘the threat to democracy of a compromised public sphere’ combined with the fact that, as you mention, we can’t always distinguish between bot and human. What do we do?

    I would have been interested in a reference/link/example of ‘evidence to suggest that governments have also used floods of bot-generated content to overwhelm activist and protest activity’.

    There may be a word missing here: ‘for as long as we’ve able to’, but thanks for an interesting topic, great header image and ‘whack-a-mole’ reference.

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