Social media came under close scrutiny following recent elections in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. The use of bots became a subject of particular interest to academics, journalists and security experts — especially since many of the bots appeared to have been created by Kremlin-affiliated intelligence agencies.
Bots — the popular word for an automated online agent designed to pass off as a human — remain an area of significant concern as we head into Canadian federal elections next month and the US presidential elections next year. Fenwick McKelvey is an associate professor of communication studies in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Concordia University. He co-authored a recent paper in the Canadian Journal of Communication that examines the role of bots in politics and possible solutions to problems they create. Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa co-wrote the study.
The paper argues that bots often act as disruptive agents, breaking down public trust not just in democratic institutions, but the legitimacy of information received from the internet as a whole. And their disruptive influence remains even after platforms like Twitter, where bots once thrived, have taken steps to remove and block them.
“I’m surprised at how bots have become really endemic to wider public anxieties about legitimate democratic participation, manipulation and our dwindling trust in the sources of our information,” McKelvey says.
Good bot, bad bot
While not all bots are malicious or political in nature, the authors note that some are particularly harmful when used for political ends. Take, for instance, “astroturfing,” a term denoting a fake grassroots campaign on a particular, usually divisive issue. These bots, created by PR firms, political action committees or individuals, are only loosely tied if at all to any one political party. This creates questions of legitimacy and raises important issues regarding campaign advertising and financing rules.
The good news, according to McKelvey, is that a solution to this gray area is fairly straightforward. Banning all bots would be next to impossible and could create far more problems than they solve, as many legitimate websites such as Wikipedia rely on bots to function. There could be a bot registry where practitioners have to register to sell their services, but because bots are so easy to create, this may be difficult to enforce under existing election laws.
He suggests that institutions — including political parties and platforms like Twitter — adopt codes of conduct that require disclosing the use of bots in their campaign advertising efforts.
“We’ll see in the election if there is any disclosure,” McKelvey says. “If the parties are using bots and disclosing it, that would be very interesting.” Some political leaders have already signed the Pledge for Election Integrity. Through it, candidates promise not to use fake or doctored data or material for political purposes and affirm their commitment to transparency regarding the use of bots and sources of campaign finances.
Nevertheless, he is convinced that bots are going to be a permanent part of our electoral ecosystem in the years to come. As they become more sophisticated, he says, democracies will need to address them in a meaningful way.
For this upcoming campaign, McKelvey is moving his focus away from the delivery mechanism — bots — to the content they are promoting. That means looking at the memes that are making their way around the internet and social media platforms.
With the help of undergraduate students in his political communication class, McKelvey will be looking “at the use of memes during the Canadian election as a way of understanding what issues are spreading. What are people talking about on the internet? And we’ll be looking at how that affects the way people are informing themselves about a particular candidate.”
Read the cited paper