Bots Are People Too

I came to love bots because of @TwoHeadlines, @CongressEdits and NYTimes Haiku. Not only did they bring me great entertainment, but as is the case with @CongressEdits, I thought they were providing a great service. However, not all bots are cool. Lurking among us are bots sponsored by governments. Bots whose mission is to give a false impression of support or to drown out opposing views. These types of bots have been used in recent years by the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia and Syria. However the methods by which these governments use bots are not as clear and transparent as they are with political bots like @CongressEdits. In this post, I’ll use the government of Mexico’s use of political bots as an example of how the traditional definition of political bots might not be enough cover what’s happening in Mexico.

I’ll start by using Wikipedia’s definition of bots and is the one widely used to describe bots. Bots are “software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone.” I like this definition because it leads me to ask the question: What if you had access to enough resources and low-skilled labor such that you could perform the simple and repetitive tasks with real people? This is how our story of the Peñabots begins.

Shortly after the start of the 2012 Mexican presidential election, then candidate Enrique Peña Nieto rose to Twitter dominance. It seemed the candidate was enjoying an unusual amount of support from social media users. To some savvy netizens, this seemed suspicious. Sure enough, Twitterverse eventually discovered that the EPN campaign was making use of large armies of volunteers to show support for the candidate and to drown out any opposition that could appear online. The name Peñabot appeared shortly after this discovery in November 2011. It is unclear whether the word “bot” in “Peñabot” was originally used to fit the traditional definition of a “software that performs a repetitive task” or if it was originally used to refer to actual volunteers who under direction from campaign managers would mindlessly perform repetitive tasks such as tweeting the same text and retweeting other supporters. In case of the latter, the word Peñabot is similar to Limbots and Obamabots and is often used in parallel with Pejezombies, or the followers of competing candidate Lopez Obrador.

penabot2

Although people seem to be pretty confident that the campaign (and now actual government) used software bots, it has been confirmed that EPN did in fact use armies of volunteers to take over the conversation on Twitter. One former EPN social media manager confessed that at one point the campaign was coordinating 20,000 volunteers to show support for the candidate and to target and drown out any opposing hashtag that could surface during the campaign trail.

The ability to coordinate such a large army of volunteer may be effective in bumping hashtags off the trending topic list since Twitter’s algorithms measure “burstiness” of tweets. One example where volunteers overran a hashtag was with #MarchaAntiEPN (March Against EPN) in the state of Tabasco where volunteers bumped the hashtag off the list with #TodoTabascoConEPN (All of Tabasco With EPN). People discovered the presence of Peñabots because the majority of #TodoTabascoConEPN tweets came from a single location in Mexico City (apparently tweets were geotagged?).

There is no reason why EPN’s government couldn’t carry out their campaign using actual software bots (RT’ing pro-government tweets, tweeting from a list of pre-written messages, crowding hashtags and making your own hashtag trend). However, since they relied so heavily on “manual” tweeting to achieve something that a bot might be able to do, I wonder if it makes sense to expand the definition of bots to include such large-scale tweeting campaigns?  Does it matter to citizens whether a pro-government message comes from a person or a bot if they can’t tell which one produced the message? Does it matter to citizens if they knew it was a bot or a person acting as part of a larger campaign? 

Human or Bot?

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