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How Bots Win Friends and Influence People

Along with the project’s work, I was featured in a short article on bots in IEEE Spectrum.

Every now and then sociologist Phil Howard writes messages to social media accounts accusing them of being bots. It’s like a Turing test of the state of online political propaganda. “Once in a while a human will come out and say, ‘I’m not a bot,’ and then we have a conversation,” he said at the European Conference for Science Journalists in Copenhagen on June 29.

In his academic writing, Howard calls bots “highly automated accounts.” By default, the accounts publish messages on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites at rates even a teenager couldn’t match. Human puppet-masters manage them, just like the Wizard of Oz, but with a wide variety of commercial aims and political repercussions. Howard and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute in England published a working paper last month examining the influence of these social media bots on politics in nine countries.

“Our goal is to produce large amounts of evidence, gathered systematically, so that we can make some safe, if not conservative, generalizations about where public life is going,” Howard says. The working paper, available ahead of peer-review in draft form, reports on countries with a mixture of different types of governments: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine, and the United States.

 

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