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Social Media, Revolution, and the Rise of the Political Bot

Published on
28 Aug 2015
Written by
Philip Howard

Uprisings and protests worldwide, from the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East to Euromaidan in the Ukraine, have made use of social media in creative ways. Activists use these online tools in efforts to mobilize, organize, and publicize their grievances. Yet scholars take differing positions on the effectiveness of social media as a mechanism for collective action. Many believe that platforms like Twitter and Facebook have played a crucial role in the toolkit of contemporary activism, and that these sites make group organization more efficient and effective.  Others argue that using these sites adds little, and often exposes social movements to surveillance and censorship early in their formation. While some suggest social media have contributed to significant increases in civic engagement during contentious political situations, others contend that these networks are just as likely to be used for despotic purposes as they are to be used for democratic ones. This chapter covers the major debates over the use of social media during revolution and other political crises. The emergence of a new socially mediated tool of considerable political significance, the social media bot, is also explored. Powerful political actors are now harnessing bots—amalgamations of code that mimic users and produce content— for the purposes of online propaganda. We discuss the ways these bots have been used generally, and then move into the ways they are now being used politically. We contend that this computational propaganda is among the most significant consequences of the latest innovations in social media.

Woolley, Samuel C. and Philip N. Howard. “Social Media, Revolution, and the Rise of the Political Bot,” in the Routledge Handbook of Media, Conflict, and Security, edited by Romy Frolich and Piers Robinson. London, UK: Routledge, forthcoming.

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