Key to democracy is public engagement – when people discuss the issues of the day with each other openly, honestly and without outside influence. But what happens when large numbers of participants in that conversation are biased robots created by unseen groups with unknown agendas? As my research has found, that’s what has happened this election season.
It turns out that much of the political content Americans see on social media every day is not produced by human users. Rather, about one in every five election-related tweets from Sept. 16 to Oct. 21 was generated by computer software programs called “social bots.”
These artificial intelligence systems can be rather simple or very sophisticated, but they share a common trait: They are set to automatically produce content following a specific political agenda determined by their controllers, who are nearly impossible to identify. These bots have affected the online discussion around the presidential election, including leading topics and how online activity was perceived by the media and the public.