Nearly 20% of all Tweets relating to the 2016 election came from bots – algorithmically driven entities that look and behave like real users of the platform . And in the final few hours of the French Presidential election campaign, it was Twitter Bots that drove the spread of the #MacronLeaks . Bots, and the people behind the creation of them, are a real concern during election campaigns and there has been debate about how important they will be in the UK General Election campaign.
But should we worry about bots? As with many things, it is tempting to think that what happens on Twitter matters most. Research into the spread of news in the 2016 election has shown that every US adult will have seen at least one piece of ‘fake news’, recall and belief of this content is very low compared to ’true news’ . So whilst bots may be spreading inaccurate or ‘fake news’ stories, and whilst this might cause lots of people to see this content, people are less likely to believe it than they would be news from other sources.
But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry about bots. Whilst Twitter may not be representative of any discussion about General Election issues, when stories that are fuelled by bots get covered by more mainstream media we see them take a greater prominence. And when bots are used to spread the results of other activities, hacking for instance, they can help an issue to gain prominence very quickly. Had the #MacronLeaks not occurred just before the French media election coverage blackout, for example, we should have seen a greater impact of this discussion on general, non-Twitter, election discourse in the country.
Further, bots can serve to limit individual’s own political discourse online. the mixture of bots and real accounts that attack people who express certain views online is certainly dissuading some from airing those views. And dissuading people from engaging in political discourse is not to be encouraged or welcomed.
So the impact that bots will have on the General Election results may be limited when they act alone, but combined with hacking and other interferences, they can help a story to get traction very quickly.
But not all bots are bad. BBC News had been experimenting with a Facebook Messenger bot to deliver news and commentary about Brexit when the snap election was called. It has since turned this into a General Election bot, serving news in Messenger and turning 500-word news articles into a series of messages. The bot is designed to act more like a friend helping you to navigate your way through the issues of the day, rather than as a patriarchal news organisation and it is one of many areas where news organisations are experimenting with new ways of telling stories online.
So not all bots are bad – and some can even be good.