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In mid-August, the White House announced that it would be possible to communicate with President Barack Obama via Facebook messenger, the wildly popular messaging app that many people now use to send each other updates throughout the day on their smartphones.
But here’s the twist: you weren’t really communicating with President Obama or even a member of the White House team – you were communicating with a bot. And yet people don’t seem to mind – in the search for more direct communication with the American people, the White House has decided that messenger bots have a role to play.
And that’s not a quirky little exercise from the White House digital team – almost everywhere you look these days, the push is on to find clever ways to use automated social media accounts as part of their overall digital marketing mix. Taco Bell came out with the Taco Bot, which enables a user to chat with a bot to order a taco. Not to be outdone, Domino’s makes it possible to order a pizza by tweeting a pizza emoji to @Dominos.
That leads to an interesting notion – these days, you don’t really know if you’re interacting with a bot or a human when you use social media. On Twitter, the only clue is the dreaded “egg profile.” It’s reminiscent of the early days of the Internet and the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon of the dog using a desktop computer – “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Now, nobody knows if you’re a bot.
In July, the Association for Computing Machinery – the same organization that hands out the Turing Award each year to the top computer scientist in the world – ran a cover story in its flagship publication on the rampant rise of social bots. These bots are everywhere, it turns out. By some estimates, social bots make up approximately 50 percent of all online traffic.
In July, too, Tech Crunch loudly proclaimed that chatbots “will dominate social media.” Microsoft’s “Tay” chatbot project may have dangerously derailed, but there are plenty of innocuous uses for these bots – think of news bots that automatically tweet out headlines of new stories. The combination of AI and social media is an intoxicating mix.
There are some positives to all this, of course. If you’re a digital marketer, using automated social media accounts opens up all kinds of creative possibilities to change how customers consume content, how customer service works, and how transactions work. There’s something about tweeting a pizza emoji to get a pizza pie that is so wonderfully creative. If you could convince people to order more pizzas by creating a bot, wouldn’t you do it, too?
But there are also some negatives, as well. It makes it a lot easier for gossip, lies, and scandals to travel if fake Twitter bots are the ones doing the retweeting. Mark Twain once noted that, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” In the age of the social bot, you can multiply that by a factor of 10. Or 100. Or maybe even 1000.
No doubt, this election cycle, there are Trump bots and Clinton bots lurking on social media, and they’re subtly trying to change our views and actions. The German newspaper Deutsche Welle has warned of “political bots” that play a “murky role” in the current U.S. presidential campaign. Now that President Obama has told us it’s OK to hang out with a messenger bot, that’s perhaps not so hard to believe.
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