The battle against bots

There’s a good chance if you’re on social media that you’ve come across an internet bot.

These bots take the guise of normal accounts but are either generated or adapted by computers to post out a vast amount of content.

“There’s a kind of spectrum, if you like,” explains Helen Margetts,
director of the Public Policy Programme at the Alan Turing Institute.

“It could be more of a kind of human machine collaboration where a human is putting out multiple – in a sort of quasi-automated way – pieces of content, but basically doing it at a rate that a human being probably couldn’t manage.”

For some years now, experts have suspected that bots have been intentionally used to interfere with elections and democratic processes.

Professor Renaud Lambiotte, who co-wrote a report looking into the impact of bots on UK elections, said: “One possibility is that the bots basically enhance the separation between people having different opinions.

“But also they can be used to provide some importance or they can help to validate certain people just by enhancing the number of votes or tweets or likes they have on social media.”

However, Margetts warns that we still don’t have enough information to form conclusions regarding how much impact these bots are having on our democracy.

“How much impact does it have? That’s the really important question,” she says.

“You take all the misinformation that there is out there, which misinformation is actually making a difference, which is affecting your belief in what is true and what isn’t true.”

“We’re only at the beginnings of knowing what sort of impact it has on our political views.”

In 2019, shortly before the UK December election, the government delayed the release of the Russia report, a report looking into Russian interference in UK elections.

When eventually released, the report found that the government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”, and had made no serious effort to do so.

“The government are not willing to look at that. They say there’s no evidence that there was,” explains Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy.

“The only problem with that is that no one in the intelligence and security family was asked to look for any evidence.”

“The evidence seems to point to Eastern Europe as being the principal source, certainly for many of the bots and sort of organised Facebook groups that are targeting the US and indeed the UK.”

So how do we fight back against these bots, and who is responsible for leading this battle?

“Social media companies [must] up their game,” says Margetts.

“And for ages they sort of said they couldn’t, although they already were. But they kind of vastly understated the amount that they could do.”

So next time you see an inflammatory statement on social media from an odd-looking account, maybe fact check it first.

Twitter and Facebook could not be reached for a comment.