I, Propaganda-bot

By Matt Gray

16th November 2017

At the recent Lord Mayor’s banquet in London, Theresa May made an unprecedented attack on Moscow, accusing Vladimir Putin’s administration of “planting fake stories” during “a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption.” Her speech was prescient – not a word often associated with her beleaguered Government – coming as it does during an Electoral Commission probe into Russian interference during the Brexit referendum, primarily through the use of bots.

Those who are au fait with social media discourse will also be familiar with terms like bots, sockpuppets and troll farms, but each term has the same meaning: an automated account (or a linked network of accounts) designed to imitate human behaviour and conversation on social media.

The extent to which bots have infiltrated social media platforms is astounding, with researchers at the University of Southern California and Indiana University finding that bots make up to 15% of all Twitter users (an estimated 48 million accounts). Over the years, tactical bot use has developed from the rudimentary – such as by increasing followers so accounts appear more popular – to the altogether more sinister, even able to shut down authentic accounts that voice adversarial opinions to the bots’ programmed motive.

The Trolls from Olgino

The most unsettling effect of bots is their ability to influence public discourse through disguise, pushing a political view that appears to come from a genuine person, but is in fact often from an external player with a subversive agenda.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency – a state-backed company also known as the “Trolls from Olgino” – first gained notoriety for its attempts to influence Western sentiment during Russia’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine, but the full extent of its capabilities was seen during last year’s US Presidential election. Posts and comments generated by the organisation are now known to have reached 126 million American Facebook users during the campaign, with content typically divisive and almost universally pro-Trump.

In Britain, researchers at City University of London have found a network of 13,000 bots to be highly active in the run up to the Brexit vote, and eight times more likely to produce pro-leave content than pro-remain. Last week, WIRED took an in-depth look at the type of accounts making up this botnet— again revealing them to tweet predominantly pro-Brexit, anti-immigration and racist content, while gaining hundreds of thousands of followers in the process.

The woman in the headscarf

One prominent example of this type of bot has been highlighted recently in the Guardian. Following the terrorist attack at the Palace of Westminster in March this year, a photograph tweeted by an account known as @SouthLoneStar saw a woman in a headscarf passing the scene. It was accompanied by the caption: ‘Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam’

The image had been drastically taken out of context, however this did not stop a wave of hate being cast towards the woman in question, who soon also had to defend herself from an antagonistic tabloid press. The Daily Star even went as far as using @SouthLoneStar’s tweet within their own reporting, casually citing it as “criticism”. The fact that neither social media users or journalists at national publications could identify the account as a bot is a clear example of the damage they are capable of.

Whose problem is it anyway?

The infiltration of bots on social media channels has created an enormous problem for Twitter and Facebook, yet their efforts to counteract it have been wholly insufficient. In fact a former Twitter employee, Leslie Miley, has revealed that Twitter has in the past actively chosen not to delete suspected or known bot accounts, in an effort to boost the company’s growth and Wall Street valuation.

The issue these companies are having, of course, is that the technology is not the problem. It almost never is. Without bots, it wouldn’t be Alexa ordering your pizza, it would be you. On the house phone. Without bots, you’d be using Encyclopaedia Britannica and poring over an old A—Z. Bots can mean energy efficiency. Clean energy. They can mean better customer service, increased consciousness and healthier lives.

But when it comes to the bad stuff, Silicon Valley is a mightily easy target in this equation. As Edward Luce wrote in the Financial Times on Wednesday: “Big Tech is the new big tobacco in Washington”.

Meanwhile governments, hamstrung by the internet’s existence outside of the law of nation states, are reduced to mere soundbites. Our Prime Minister on Tuesday may have warned Russia: “we know what you are doing,” but – as is becoming desperately routine for Mrs May – there seems to be little she can do to halt them.

With Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net report revealing that 30 governments across the world are now “deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information,” the scale of the problem does not look set to improve. Dystopian futurologists may once have imagined robots waging Terminator-style wars against their human creators, but a different future is now set to manifest: a propaganda war, fought between virtual bots on the social media battlefield.