Let’s Build Pro-Democracy Twitter Bots

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 31 2012 10:41 AM

Let’s Build Pro-Democracy Twitter Bots

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A woman views the Chinese social media website Weibo at a cafe in Beijing

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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. Because some bots generate fewer than 150 tweets a day, the actual number of bot-held accounts is probably higher. In fact, as many as one-quarter of all tweets made in an average day may come from bot accounts.

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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. And even an aspiring parliamentarian in Britain turned to bots to appear popular on social media during his campaign. 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 leaders 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.

The way Russians, Iranians, and Chinese use their social media in different ways, so there needs to be care with messaging and targeting. The Iranian blogosphere is full of poets. The Russian blogosphere has lots of nationalists. So our democracy bots need to be engaging, and promote stories about what life is like in countries where freedom and faith coexist. Or the tweets could provide links to news stories and cultural content that engages particular social networks. The task of such bots would not be to send pro-Western messages to the accounts of anti-Western tweeters. Instead, it would be to send links about life in countries with peace, order, and good governance to moms blogging about their parenting troubles, students getting caught up in the Eurovision contest, and government workers reading online news from sources outside their country.

It would be toughest to turn our bots on Chinese Internet users, most of whom are not linked up to global information infrastructure in the way the rest of us are. This makes it difficult for large amounts of content to flow between China and the rest of the world. Most Chinese use QQ and Weibo, the Facebook and Twitter equivalents. Accounts on these sites have to be validated by a real person before they get permission to launch pre-formulated messages on a programmed schedule. So someone in China might have to take personal risks in letting democracy robots lose. Or a hacktivist would have to exploit some zero-day vulnerability—we know there is a market for information about those secret vulnerabilities.

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. Not putting the robots to work for democracy is the more dangerous strategy.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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.

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