Most Twitter users try to ignore messages from robot accounts. But maybe we should be putting bots to work for a more noble cause—democracy, writes the University of Washington’s Philip N. Howard
“One estimate holds that 75 percent of all Twitter traffic is generated by the most active users—about 5 percent of Twitter accounts. One-third of those active users are believed to be machine bots tweeting more than 150 times a day,” he writes for Slate:
Most of these crafty bots generate inane commentary and try to sell stuff, but some are given political tasks. For example, pro-Chinese bots have clogged Twitter conversations about the conflict in Tibet. In Mexico’s recent presidential election, the political parties played with campaign bots on Twitter. … Furthermore, the Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and Venezuelan governments employ their own social media experts and pay small amounts of money to large numbers of people (“50 cent armies”) to generate pro-government messages, if inefficiently.
During the Cold War, Western diplomats smuggled fax machines to the democracy advocates behind the Iron Curtain. For a while now, we’ve been sending satellite phones to activists who need help organizing supporters. But we aren’t yet taking advantage of Twitter robots. Let’s put those tools to work promoting democratic values, expanding the news diets of people in other countries, and critiquing tough dictators.
Inevitably, this will result in some sort of Twitter war of the robots, some promoting democracy, some decrying it. I suppose anti-democracy robots can target their own citizens at home or abroad, but they would probably have little impact on the people living in democracies. Sure, maybe this will clog up Twitter a bit. But we need a strategic response to 50-cent armies and the existing authoritarian bots.
Philip N. Howard is professor of communication, information, and international studies at the University of Washington. Currently, he is a fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He tweets from @pnhoward.