Or autocrats could be even craftier and hijack, rather than simply block, new content trends they find threatening. Following the Arab Spring uprisings, anyone posting critical comments about Bahrain or Syria on Twitter was likely to receive angry corrections from the government loyalists or, more likely, their bots. Likewise, Tibetan activists lament that several Tibet-related Twitter hashtags—#tibet and #freetibet in particular—feature so much junk created by spambots that they are no longer useful.
Now big-data technology can make such propaganda more precise. For governments and corporations alike, the next frontier is to learn how to identify, pre-empt, and disrupt emerging memes before they coalesce behind a catchy hashtag—this is where “big data” analytics would be most helpful. Thus, one of the Russian security agencies has recently awarded a tender to create bots that can both spot the formation of memes and to disrupt and counter them in real-time through ”mass distribution of messages in social networks with a view to the formation of public opinion.” Moscow is learning from Washington here: Last year the Pentagon awarded a $2.7 million contract to the San Diego-based firm Ntrepid in order to build software to create fake multiple online identities and “counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.” “Big data”-powered analytics would make spotting such “enemy propaganda” much easier.
Why would anyone bother with such tactics, given how hard it might be for a bot—which has few contacts and no meaningful history of tweeting—to persuade humans? First, persuasion may not be the goal. Some bots exist only to make it harder to discover timely factual information about, say, some ongoing political protests. All that investment in bots may have paid off for the Kremlin: During the protests that followed the disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011, Twitter was brimming with fake accounts that sought to overwhelm the popular hashtags with useless information. One recent study claims that of 46,846 Twitter accounts that participated in discussing the disputed Russian elections, 25,860—more than half!—were bots, posting 440,793 tweets on the subject.
Second, bots might help to add numerical ballast to memes that are already promoted by prominent humans in order to push them to the top of the viral charts. During this year's presidential elections in Mexico, the PRI (whose candidate won the election) was accused of programming thousands of bots to tweet specific words and phrases in order to land their preferred message on Twitter's “trending topics.” But the PRI also did a very good job getting its supporters to tweet en masse. One campaign had them all tweet a certain hashtag at the same time. It's through such combination of humans and bots that memes emerge.
Third, the smartest of bots can serve another very interesting function: They can introduce humans to one another—for example, by mentioning both of their Twitter handles in one tweet. A 2011 experiment by PacSocial, an analytics company focused on bots, revealed that bots can, indeed, increase connections between users. In the PacSocial experiment, the connection rate increased by 43 percent (as compared to a testing period where no bots were present). Thus, with just some clever manipulation, bots might get you to follow the right humans—and it's the humans, not bots, who would then influence your thinking.
Digitization will increase—not decrease!—the number of intermediaries in our public life. There is nothing inherently evil about intermediaries once we remember to keep them in check. Instead of celebrating the mythical nirvana of disintermediation, we should peer inside the blackboxes of spam algorithms and propaganda bots. Our public debate might be only as good as our memes, but we shouldn't forget that not all memes are created equal—some are not created at all, while others are formed with a heavy dose of clever and insidious planning.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.