September 17, 2017

Factual Democracy Project Explains: What are Bots and Computational Propaganda?

Factual Democracy Project held its first call, Bots & Computational Propaganda on Sept. 12, just as media reports revealed that Russian bots are gearing up for the 2018 election.

Bloomberg reported just before the call, “Blamed for steering political debate last year, bots used for Russian propaganda and other causes are only becoming more emboldened,” noting that Sen. John McCain was targeted by a slew of bots after demanding that President Trump denounce white Supremacists in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that a Russian firm bought $100,000 of Facebook ads during the 2016 election.

As Lisa Maria Neudert of the Oxford Internet Institute says, fake news content producers “play into fears that are already existing. They don’t come out of nowhere.  Fake news can only exist because of structural problems we already have.  All these measures don’t come out of a vacuum.“

To be clear, Russia’s use of social media to influence the American election wasn’t necessarily simply to promote Donald Trump as a candidate.  “I think that’s there a sense on the left that this is a right/left issue, that this is somehow about one political candidate above another,” CEO of New Knowledge AI Jonathan Morgan cautioned in a comment picked up by the New York Times. “And I think the fact that we now know that Kremlin-backed organizations were specifically inciting anti-immigrant sentiment speaks to the fact that this is more about destabilizing our democracy and pitting us against each other, to limit our participation on the world stage. From a strategic position, this is almost similar to the kinds of activities that terrorist organizations might engage in.”

Renee DiResta, founder of Haven TMS, and an expert in computational propaganda warns that Facebook’s lack of transparency must be addressed. “It’s a situation of private profit and public harm. One of the things you see a lot right now is articles with the drumbeat of regulation.  And this is an industry that for a very long time was immune from these conversations.”  

Unlike Twitter, in which conversations and data are public, “the thing that’s really interesting about Facebook is it puts out these stories and it says what it wants to say about the data it has on its platform, and it’s almost impossible to verify because there’s no outside oversight.”

“As we look into restoring sanity into the system, and our political discourse, we have no insight into what this entity that serves a billion people every day actually sees.”

The Factual Democracy Project was created by founder Melissa Ryan to bring frequently siloed conversations over internet disinformation and far-right extremism in technology, media, national security and civil society together to broaden our understanding and encourage solutions.  

For media inquiries or to speak with a panelist, contact press@factualdemocracy.com. Donors have access to full conference call recordings.