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How Politicians Should and Shouldn’t Use Twitter Bots

D&S Researcher Tim Hwang and Samuel Woolley consider the larger trend toward automated politics and the likely future sophistication of automated politics and potential impacts on the public sphere in the era of social media.

Political bots are challenging in part because they are dual-use. Even though many of the bot deployments we see are designed to manipulate social media and suppress discourse, bots aren’t inherently corrosive to the public sphere. There are numerous examples of bots deployed by media organizations, artists, and cultural commentators oriented toward raising awareness and autonomously “radiating” relevant news to the public. For instance, @stopandfrisk tweets information on the every instance of stop-and-frisk in New York City in order to highlight the embattled policy. On the other hand, @staywokebot sends messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

This is true of bots in general, even when they aren’t involved in politics. Intelligent systems can be used for all sorts of beneficial things—they can conserve energy and can even save lives—but they can also be used to waste resources and forfeit free speech. Ultimately, the real challenge doesn’t lie in some inherent quality of the technology but the incentives that encourage certain beneficial or harmful uses.

The upshot of this is that we should not simply block or allow all bots—the act of automation alone poses no threat to open discourse online. Instead, the challenge is to design a regime that encourages positive uses while effectively hindering negative uses.