Bots stoke racial strife in Virginia governor’s race

Politico reports: Twitter bots are swarming into the Virginia governor’s race and promoting chatter about a racially charged Democratic ad days before Election Day, according to a report commissioned by allies of Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s campaign.

The activity centers on an ad from Latino Victory Fund, depicting a child’s nightmare in which a supporter of Republican Ed Gillespie chases immigrant children in a pickup truck bearing a Confederate flag. Gillespie’s campaign reacted furiously to the ad, which barely ran on TV but got major attention online, and has made backlash to the Democratic ad a major part of its closing message.

That backlash erupted quickly, and Latino Victory Fund later retracted the ad. But the reaction has been amplified on Twitter by automated accounts. Out of the 15 accounts tweeting most frequently about the Latino Victory Fund ad, 13 belong to fully or partially automated bots, according to an analysis from Discourse Intelligence. (The other two accounts are Republican political operatives.)

“Highly scripted, highly robotic accounts are being used to boost this message into the Twitter conversation,” said Tim Chambers, the report’s author and the U.S. practice lead for digital at the Dewey Square Group. The firm was retained by the National Education Association, whose Virginia affiliate has endorsed Northam.

Of the 15 accounts most frequently sending out messages about the ad from Latino Victory Fund, just two accounts belonging to GOP operatives were human, while 13 belonged to either fully or partially automated bots, according to the report from Discourse Intelligence. The National Education Association, whose Virginia affiliate backs Northam, paid for the report.

The 15 accounts highlighted in the report have the potential to reach 651,000 people, the report says. It notes these accounts just make up less than 1 percent of the nearly 3,000 accounts with tweets including both “Latino victory” and either “Gillespie” or “Northam.”

A spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is helping lead the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said the incident mirrors past bot attempts to “manipulate” social media conversations. Warner and other senators, including Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have also warned during their investigation about attempts to interfere in future American elections as well. [Continue reading…]

While this report may be used to highlight the ever-present threat of foreign interference in U.S. elections, what it really underlines is the corrosive effect on democracy presented by the existence of social media.

Twitter and Facebook weren’t created to damage democracy, so this isn’t an issue of malevolent intent. But given that social media has already become — globally — the preeminent instrument for manipulating public opinion, at some point attention needs to turn away from Russia’s opportunistic use of social media and the internet to further its national interest, and focus more intently on the broad political repercussions of the digital age and the extent to which connectivity, far from creating a global village, has become the most effective means for promoting division. This doesn’t simply result in online spats — it can lead to ethnic cleansing and a refugee crisis.

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