Bots on social networks: a real threat to public debate

FGV’s Department of Public Policy Analysis (DAPP) has released a study indicating an illegitimate interference in online discussions via bots.
Public Policy
25 August 2017
Bots on social networks: a real threat to public debate

FGV’s Department of Public Policy Analysis (DAPP) has released a study indicating an illegitimate interference in online discussions via bots. Accounts programmed to make massive posts have become a potential tool to manipulate discussions on social networks, especially at times of political relevance.

The study points out that during the general strike in April this year, more than 20% of Twitter interactions between users in favor of the strike were caused by these automated accounts. Bots also influenced the 2014 elections, generating more than 10% of the discussions.

As in public discussions outside the virtual world, the web has also become a space to easily spread false information. With this, the virtual world has allowed the adaptation of old political strategies of slander and manipulation of public discussions, but now on a much larger scale.

“Therefore, the growth of concerted bot actions represents a real threat to public debate, potentially jeopardizing democracy by manipulating the process of consensus-building in the public sphere, as well as the selection of representatives and government agendas that may define the future of the country”, said DAPP Director Marco Aurelio Ruediger.

DAPP’s research effort warns us that no one is immune and that we must try to understand, filter, and report the use and dissemination of false or manipulative information through this kind of strategy and technology. It is important to constantly protect all of our democratic venues, including social networks. This protection requires us to identify the bots to differentiate real and manipulated situations in the virtual environment. On the eve of the ‘election year’ that will define the next Brazilian President, with potentially cutthroat campaigns, it is essential to map the patterns of use of these mechanisms in order to prevent illegitimate interference in discussions, as seen in other countries.

For this reason, DAPP has developed a refined system to identify suspicious accounts that behave like bots, generating content through algorithms, and whose results show the major role played by bots at key moments in recent Brazilian politics.

“With this effort, we point out two of DAPP’s commitments. The first is linked to the monitoring discussions on social networks and helping uphold democracy. The second is a continuous effort to develop and improve detection technologies and understand this phenomenon”, said Ruediger.