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Automating Power: Social Bot Interference in Global Politics

Published on
1 Apr 2016
Written by
Philip Howard

Over the last several years political actors worldwide have begun harnessing the digital power of social bots — software programs designed to mimic human social media users on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Increasingly, politicians, militaries, and government-contracted firms use these automated actors in online attempts to manipulate public opinion and disrupt organizational communication. Politicized social bots — here ‘political bots’ — are used to massively boost politicians’ follower levels on social media sites in attempts to generate false impressions of popularity. They are programmed to actively and automatically flood news streams with spam during political crises, elections, and conflicts in order to interrupt the efforts of activists and political dissidents who publicize and organize online. They are used by regimes to send out sophisticated computational propaganda. This paper conducts a content analysis of available media articles on political bots in order to build an event data set of global political bot deployment that codes for usage, capability, and history. This information is then analyzed, generating a global outline of this phenomenon. This outline seeks to explain the variety of political bot-oriented strategies and presents details crucial to building understandings of these automated software actors in the humanities, social and computer sciences.

Woolley, S. (2016). Automating power: Social bot interference in global politics. First Monday, 21(4). doi:10.5210/fm.v21i4.6161. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 01 Apr. 2016. doi:10.5210/fm.v21i4.6161.

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