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For political candidates, social media bots have emerged as potentially powerful tools to help sway public opinion, spread fake news, and amplify certain opinions and viewpoints. According to a study by MIT Technology Review, for example, one-fifth of all election-related social media posts during the 2016 election could be attributed to social media bots. So there’s good reason to believe that they will play an even more important role in the 2020 presidential election.
Swaying public opinion
One primary function of these social media bots is to sway public opinion. An idea or policy that might not be popular could be made to look popular if thousands of social media bots are liking, commenting and re-tweeting content. Thus, a candidate might have an unpopular foreign policy (“Build that wall!”), but if enough bots are engaged as part of a coordinated campaign, it might be possible to give the impression that a majority of Americans support that policy. And it’s not just Republicans who are guilty of using social media bots – during the impeachment scandal, Democrats appeared to be using bots to manipulate public opinion.
Inserting new trending topics into mainstream discourse
Social media bots can also be remarkably effective at creating momentum around certain topics. How many times have you checked out the trending topics on Twitter and wondered how certain topics could possibly be so popular? In the dark art of election campaigning, “astroturfing” is one way to give the illusion of grassroots support. If enough bots are using the same hashtag, it is possible to create the semblance of real grassroots support – just ignore for a moment that the bots liking, commenting or sharing content might not have any followers at all.
Shifting media narratives
At the end of the day, politics is all about narratives. The easiest way to see this is by comparing the political coverage of CNN and Fox News. Most days, it seems like there are two alternative realities, and that “journalists” have morphed into propagandists, telling you exactly what you should be thinking about a particular topic. The brilliance of the #FakeNews hashtag is that it is a simple, easy way for anyone to play a role in discounting the traditional media narrative. Now imagine thousands of bots, all coordinating their efforts to marginalize the content produced by certain media organizations. Memes, too, play a very important role in helping to shift media narratives. “Meme warfare” is one way to share messages widely in a way that can be easily supported by bots.
The danger of elections determined by algorithms
Of course, there is a certain risk involved if bots become too powerful. At some point, we will reach a tipping point where bots are producing more political content than humans. Instead of just helping to shape public opinion and manipulate political views, they might be used to change the outcome of an election entirely. As a result, the winner might not be the candidate chosen by the American people, but rather, the candidate chosen by an algorithm. Whoever has the most sophisticated algorithm wins…