If fake news created the scaffolding for this new automated political propaganda machine, bots, or fake social media profiles, have become its foot soldiers — an army of political robots used to control conversations on social media and silence and intimidate journalists and others who might undermine their messaging.
Samuel Woolley, Director of Research at the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project and a fellow at Google’s Jigsaw project, has dedicated his career to studying the role of bots in online political organizing — who creates them, how they’re used, and to what end.
Research by Woolley and his Oxford-based team in the lead-up to the 2016 election found that pro-Trump political messaging relied heavily on bots to spread fake news and discredit Hillary Clinton. By election day, Trump’s bots outnumbered hers, 5:1.
“The use of automated accounts was deliberate and strategic throughout the election, most clearly with pro-Trump campaigners and programmers who carefully adjusted the timing of content production during the debates, strategically colonized pro-Clinton hashtags, and then disabled activities after Election Day,” the study by Woolley’s team reported.
There’s no way to know for sure whether Cambridge Analytica was responsible for subcontracting the creation of those Trump bots. “In Western democracies,” Woolley says, “bots have often been bought or built by subcontractors of main digital contractor teams because there is less necessity to report these deeper layers of campaign satellite workers to election commissions.”
But if anyone outside of the Trump campaign is qualified to speculate, it would be Woolley. Led by Dr. Philip Howard, the team’s Principal Investigator, Woolley and his colleagues have been tracking the use of bots in political organizing since 2010. That’s when Howard, buried deep in research about the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring, first noticed thousands of bots coopting hashtags used by protesters.
Curious, he and his team began reaching out to hackers, botmakers, and political campaigns, getting to know them and trying to understand their work and motivations. Eventually, those creators would come to make up an informal network of nearly 100 informants that have kept Howard and his colleagues in the know about these bots over the last few years.
Before long, Howard and his team were getting the heads up about bot propaganda campaigns from the creators themselves. As more and more major international political figures began using botnets as just another tool in their campaigns, Howard, Woolley and the rest of their team studied the action unfolding.
The world these informants revealed is an international network of governments, consultancies (often with owners or top management just one degree away from official government actors), and individuals who build and maintain massive networks of bots to amplify the messages of political actors, spread messages counter to those of their opponents, and silence those whose views or ideas might threaten those same political actors.
“The Chinese, Iranian, and Russian, governments employ their own social-media experts and pay small amounts of money to large numbers of people to generate pro-government messages,” Howard and his coauthors wrote in a 2015 research paper about the use of bots in the Venezuelan election.
Depending on which of those three categories bot creators fall into — government, consultancy or individual — they’re just as likely to be motivated by political beliefs as they are the opportunity to auction off their networks of digital influence to the highest bidder.
Not all bots are created equal. The average, run-of-the-mill Twitter bot is literally a robot — often programmed to retweet specific accounts to help popularize specific ideas or viewpoints. They also frequently respond automatically to Twitter users who use certain keywords or hashtags — often with pre-written slurs, insults or threats.
High-end bots on the other hand are more analog, operated by real people. They assume fake identities with distinct personalities and their responses to other users online are specific, intended to change their opinions or those of their followers by attacking their viewpoints. They have online friends and followers. They’re also far less likely to be discovered — and their accounts deactivated — by Facebook or Twitter.
Working on their own, Woolley estimates, an individual could build and maintain up to 400 of these boutique Twitter bots; on Facebook, which he says is more effective at identifying and shutting down fake accounts, an individual could manage 10-20.
As a result, these high-quality botnets are often used for multiple political campaigns. During the Brexit referendum, the Oxford team watched as one network of bots, previously used to influence the conversation around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, was reactivated to fight for the Leave campaign. Individual profiles were updated to reflect the new debate, their personal taglines changed to ally with their new allegiances — and away they went.
Russia’s bot army has been the subject of particular scrutiny since a CIA special report revealed that Russia had been working to influence the election in Trump’s favor. Recently, reporter/comedian Samantha Bee traveled to Moscow to interview two paid Russian troll operators.
Clad in black ski masks to obscure their identities, the two talked with Bee about how and why they were using their accounts during the U.S. election. They told Bee that they pose as Americans online and target sites like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Washington Post, Facebook and Twitter. Their goal, they said, is to “piss off” other social media users, change their opinions, and silence their opponents.
Or, to put it in the words of Russian Troll #1, “when your opponent just … shut up.”