Zealot-bots and other ways disinformation disrupts democracy

disinformation bot
Image credit: Jeff Bukowski | Shutterstock.com

It’s well understood by now that Russian hackers interfered extensively with the US 2016 presidential election, to include manipulating social media platforms with disinformation. Two new research papers revealed last week warn that you’re going to be seeing a lot more of that in 2020 – and it may not take more than a handful of bots to skew the results. To say nothing of Instagram.

In a paper published in Nature, a research team led by mathematical biologist Alexander Stewart of the University of Houston ran a gamified online voting experiment pitting the ‘Yellow Party’ against the ‘Blue Party’. Voters got points if their party won, but also got some points if they lost, and zero points if the result was a tie.

The objective here was to introduce a mechanism for compromise and an incentive to avoid deadlock. The voters were also shown polls indicating which way the other side was likely to vote. Thus, undecided voters in the experiment had the option to flip their votes depending on which way the political winds were prevailing.

The researchers then introduced a small number of bots to the mix representing “zealots” of a particular party – their mission was to reject compromise and encourage voters to do likewise. Here’s what happened:

… when just a few yellow-party zealots were deployed strategically among a larger number of undecided players in the purple party, these bots were able to sway the majority opinion towards the yellow party. This was true even when the parties had exactly the same number of members, and when each player had the same amount of influence.

The real-world implication is that someone who wanted to sway the outcome of an election could do it by automating a social media campaign with a small number of zealot-bots – the hard part (which isn’t that hard in today’s world of big data) would be figuring out exactly which voters to target.

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course – for a start, voters tend to cast their vote for all kinds of reasons that may have little to do with processing different viewpoints. I’ve known people to vote for a candidate because he/she supported their one pet issue, or because said candidate was more likeable, or just because they’re sick of the incumbent and figure anyone would be a better replacement.

The study itself notes another interesting limitation: if multiple opposing parties employ their own zealot-bots, they could end up more or less cancelling each other out.

In any case, there’s little doubt that we’re already in an era where social media platforms have become a battleground for ‘information gerrymandering’ via zealot-bots, disinformation memes and deepfake videos. And there’s every reason to worry that 2016 was just the beginning – and Russia won’t be the only player engaged in shenanigans.

We need to talk about Instagram …

Another report released last week from New York University predicts that Iran and China will also likely join Russia to employ people to plant disinformation on social media. But in terms of volume, much more disinformation in the 2020 US election is likely to come from domestic players, with the overall goal of digital voter suppression. Deepfake videos will be a major tool in that arsenal.

Also, the report says, while Facebook and Twitter tend to get much of the blame for election manipulation in 2016, Instagram will be “the vehicle of choice” for disinformation memes in 2020.

Indeed, a report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee last year determined that Instagram actually played more of a role than Facebook in Russian interference efforts in 2016. That said, Facebook owns Instagram (as well as WhatsApp, which the NYU report also names as another likely “vector for false content” in 2020, as it already is in other countries such as India), so the social media giant has its work cut out for it either way.

The NYU report lists multiple recommendations for social media platforms to defend against the disinformation deluge, though much of it is stuff they’re already working on, like spotting and removing fake content (including deepfake videos), user education and better cross-platform collaboration. Social media platforms especially have to watch out for companies, consultants and PR firms who essentially offer disinformation-as-a-service at scale.

Whether they’ll actually do that (or at least do it successfully) remains to be seen. Let’s hope so. The above reports may be focused on the US election process, but social media disinformation is a global problem, especially in relatively younger and more fragile democracies.

Democracy depends on a reasonably informed voter base, but as smarter people than me have pointed out, the irony of the digital information age is that we are drowning in information overload, which makes it easy for entities to distract our attention with misinformation and exploit existing social fissures and institutional failures to get us to argue with each other.

Or with zealot-bots.

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