Social media bots are damaging our democracy

Social media has become our town crier. When major news breaks, roughly two-thirds of American adults now find out about it online in real-time. But the aftermath of the week’s third mass shooting, environmental catastrophe or political meltdown is often rife with false claims, misinformation, and outright conspiracy theories. Some of this comes simply from the confusion surrounding the unfolding situation but to an increasing degree, the discussions around these events are being deliberately — and effectively — influenced by an army of autonomous digital actors.

One need only look at the apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, who had been implicated in an international child-sex-trafficking-ring investigation, to see the effects of social-media bots. Within moments of the announcement, Twitter flooded with conspiracy theories surrounding Epstein’s death. Unsourced assertions and hypotheses spread throughout the network faster than the actual news did, thanks in part to prodigious retweeting by automated accounts.

Social bots are algorithmic software programs designed to interact with humans, sometimes to the point of persuading them that the bot is human, or autonomously perform mundane functions such as reminding people to like and subscribe in a video’s comments. Think of them as chatbots but with additional autonomy.

In fact, one of the earliest bots was ELIZA, a natural language processing computer developed at MIT in 1966. It was one of the first systems to even attempt the Turing Test.

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