Bots also silence people and groups who might otherwise have a stake in a conversation. At the same time they make some users seem more popular, they make others less likely to speak. This spiral of silence results in less discussion and diversity in politics. Moreover, bots used to attack journalists might cause them to stop reporting on important issues because they fear retribution and harassment.
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The propagandistic power of bots is strengthened when few people know they exist. Homophily is particularly strong when people believe they have strength in numbers, and bots give the illusion of such strength. The more people know about bots, the more likely it is that citizens will begin reporting and removing bots, as well as using bots to boost their own voices.
Because bots have received little public attention, critics regularly frame bots in terms of a doomsday rhetoric that is lopsided toward their negative impact. But bots aren’t only used for manipulation of unsuspecting publics. Socially empowering bots are out there. For instance, @she_not_he is “a bot politely correcting Twitter users who misgender Caitlyn Jenner.” Silicon Valley has been developing bots in attempts to broadly enhance civic engagement: On Facebook, the The New York Times’ election bot promotes political participation.
In addition to social justice bots, there are also bot services that seek to enhance everyday life online. Digital artists build bots that generate humorous messages, such as @godtributes, which takes the tweets of others and reframes them as an impassioned praise of a nondescript god: “Self-education for the self-education god!” The artificial-intelligence company Luka is designing intelligent bots that “you teach and grow through conversation.” These digital automatons are marketed as a new form of online companion.
While many people are unsettled by the rise of bots, it’s important to remember that many of today’s most ubiquitous technologies were harnessed for political ends when they were first invented. In Europe, the printing press was almost immediately used to fuel the cultural war between the Protestants and the Catholics. Martin Luther, a seminal priest in the Protestant Reformation, was the first to take advantage of it, printing thousands of bibles translated into German. The proliferation of the Lutheran bible triggered a surge in German nationalism, which amplified conflict between the faiths. Generations later, after the printing press became more widespread and accessible, it provided a tool for minority and dissident voices fighting for social justice, such as the Suffrage and the Civil Rights movements.
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Currently, there is almost no regulation on the use of bots in politics. The Federal Elections Commission has shown no evidence of even recognizing that bots exist. Bots that are used to trumpet hate speech, harass women journalists, and spread propaganda are also designed to conceal the identity of their creators. This layer of anonymity challenges the ability to hold people legally responsible. Moreover, it challenges notions of free speech—what happens when a bot, which might do things unforeseen by its maker, is the entity committing malicious acts?