(This originally appeared as “Let’s Make Candidates Pledge Not to Use Bots” on the Reuters Commentary Wire.)
Bots — chunks of computer code that generate messages and replicate themselves — have been infecting political discourse around the world. They have been spotted try to influence elections in the United Kingdom, Mexico and just recently, South Korea. Politicians there have been using bots to torment their opponents, muddle political conversations, and misdirect debate. We need political leaders to pledge not to use them.
In Canada’s last election, one-fifth of the Twitter followers of the country’s leading political figures were bots. Even Mitt Romney had a bot problem, though it’s not clear whether exaggerating the number of Twitter followers he had was a deliberate strategy or an attempt by outsiders to make him look bad. We know that authoritarian governments in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Venezuela use bots. The governments of Bahrain, Syria and Iran have used bots as part of their counter-insurgency strategies. The Chinese government uses bots to shape public opinionaround the world and at home, especially on sensitive topics like the status of Tibet.
Bots are becoming more and more prevalent. And social media is becoming a more and more important source of political news and information, especially for young people, and especially for people living in countries where the main journalistic outlets are deficient. Sophisticated technology users can sometimes spot a bot, but the best bots can be quite successful at poisoning a political conversation. Would political campaign managers in a democracy like the United States actually use them?
These days, campaign managers consider interfering with a rival’s contact system an aggressive campaign strategy. That’s because one of the most statistically significant predictors of voter turnout these days is a successful phone contact from a party supporter the night before the election. This is what has driven up invasive robo-calls. In 2006, automated calling banks reached two-thirds of voters and by 2008 robo-calls were the favored outreach tool for both Democrats and Republicans. Incapacitating your opponents’ information infrastructure in the hours before an election has become part of the game, though there have been few criminal convictions of party officials caught working with hackers to attack call centers, political websites and campaign headquarters. Republican National Committee official James Tobin was sentenced to 10 months in prison for hiring hackers to attack Democrat phone banks on Election Day in 2002. But we do know that partisans regularly launch denial of service attacks – Obamacare websites have been recent targets. If an aggressive move with technology provides some competitive advantage, some campaign manager will try it.
The question is not whether Republicans and Democrats will start using bots on each other — and us — but when. Unleashed at a strategic moment in the campaign cycle, or let loose by a lobbyist targeting key districts at a sensitive moment for a piece of legislation, bots could have immense implications for a political outcome. Bots are a kind of nuclear option for political conversation. They might influence popular opinion, but they are certainly bad for the public sphere.
For countries that hold elections, bots have become a serious, internal new threat to democracy. Most of the other democracies where bots have been used have tight spending restrictions on political campaigns and well-enunciated spending laws. In the United States, political campaigning is an aggressive, big money game, where even candidates in down ballot races may think that manipulating public opinion with social media is a cost-effective campaign strategy.
This is why we need an immediate “No First Use” pledge. Of course, a “No Use” pledge from campaign officials would be best. Realistically, any candidate who thinks his or her opponents have launched Twitter and Facebook bots is going to retaliate quickly. And the PACs, lobbyists, and donors affiliated with candidates will be tempted to release bots of their own. It has been tough for party leaders to ensure the good behavior of all their staff. Still, a clear signal from the top that bots aren’t acceptable is needed now, before we get into the 2014 campaign season.
Political campaigning is not a sport for the weak. And neither Twitter nor Facebook are the best place for complex political conversations. But citizens do use social media to share political news, humor, and information with their networks of family and friends. And it is possible to have meaningful political exchanges over social media, especially when elections are on the horizon. So please, political candidates everywhere, don’t pollute the public sphere with bots.