3 times bots have impacted major world events

Sian Roach Cybersecurity Content Specialist

From stealing sneakers to pinching PlayStations, bots are increasingly earning a reputation for being nefarious and disruptive – none more so than bots deployed by state actors to wield significant geopolitical influence. The Arab Spring, Brexit, and recent US presidential elections have all been victim to carefully orchestrated bot attacks from myriad geopolitical actors.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the part political bots played in influencing these events and how they may affect similar events in the future.

How do bots influence geopolitics?

Bots are automated programs created to allow manual computer tasks to run, without the need for human interaction. In the context of geopolitics, bots are used to spread propaganda or misinformation with the aim of manipulating people’s opinions to either favor or oppose a political party or ideology. This is typically carried out on social media, where malicious actors create fake accounts and use them to start disinformation campaigns. Technological advancements in artificial intelligence have allowed threat actors to run thousands of social media accounts at any time using social media bots. They use these bots to engage in actions such as:

  • Posting positive information about the political party or discourse they are promoting, or negative information, misinformation or ‘fake news’ on opposing political parties or opinions
  • Liking, commenting on or sharing posts relating to said political party or opinion
  • Engaging with other social media accounts – either validating their posts, or potentially retaliating with argumentative or contrasting views dependent on the political context

Three times bots influenced geopolitics

2011: The Arab Spring Organizing a revolution?

Social media bots heavily influenced the Arab Spring, a series of events that led to political upheaval in Arabic countries including Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Bahrain. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were used to organize protests and spread awareness of updates and movements. What began as a quick and efficient method of communication among protesters quickly turned into a platform of misinformation, hate speech and chaos.

Almost a decade following these events, popular social media platforms said they found and removed hundreds of bot accounts that had been spreading misinformation and state-backed manipulation during the spring 2011 events. The bots were found to have been engaging in and encouraging the promotion of hate speech and disinformation, which is likely to have escalated the chaos surrounding these events, leading to further civil unrest. 61,000 people across several Arabic countries lost their lives during the events of the Arab Spring, and it is still debated today whether the heightened disorder caused by bots contributed to the death toll or whether stricter regulations surrounding the use of bots could have saved lives.

2016: Brexit – Did bots choose to leave the EU?

According to an analysis of social media activity, one of the most divisive issues of a generation was influenced by bots. We are, of course, talking about Brexit, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) in the summer of 2016. 51.89% of the British public voted to leave the EU – interestingly, 51% of the content shared on social media was in favor of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. Was it just a coincidence that the public vote and the discussion on social media mirrored each other almost perfectly? Or can we infer that the information and discussions on social media directly influenced the public’s decision?

While it is no crime to voice your political opinion on social media or engage in spirited political debates with friends, family, and strangers, it is highly likely that many of the accounts engaging in these debates around the referendum were not real human beings but instead bot accounts created to act like human beings. An analysis of social media following the referendum found several inauthentic pro-Brexit accounts driven by bot activity. This included a huge network of social media bots on Twitter, consisting of 13,493 accounts that tweeted about the referendum, the majority of which were in support of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. When we consider that only 13% of the content on social media was shared by the Brexit Party itself, did the increased levels of pro-leave propaganda generated by bots sway public opinion in favor of leaving the EU?

2016 and 2020: The US presidential elections – Did bots influence the result?

Both Russia and China used bots to interfere with the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections to push the citizens of the United States to vote for a president whose political agenda was more in line with their own aims. In particular, social media platforms reported several instances of bots that belonged to a group known as APT28 posting political agendas and spreading misinformation to journalists before and after the presidential elections. This group has since been linked with Russian military intelligence services, and other Russian agencies such as the International Research Agency. One bot farm was being used to create and manage 13,755 social media accounts, responsible for creating over 206,625 posts within a single month. A great deal of the content generated by these bots had a political context, with the top keyword used by this bot in 2020 identified as “Trump”, closely followed by “Biden” and “Covid”.

Other bots used in both the 2016 and 2020 elections include:

  • Pro-Trump bot @amrightnow, which had more than 33,000 followers and spammed Twitter with anti-Clinton propaganda. The bot generated 1,200 posts each day during the final debate.
  • Anti-Trump bot @loserdonaldtrump, which was designed to retweet all mentions of Donald Trump that included the word loser. This bot generated over 2,000 tweets per day.

The impact of social media bots on politics and the need for legislation

Governments have created legislation surrounding the use of bots in the past – for example, the ban on using automated software to purchase and resell event tickets for a profit on the secondary market – however, how likely is it that a ban on the use of social media bots will ever be enforced legally? And would it even work?

Unfortunately, the lack of legislation may already be having a negative impact on the way people view and engage with politics. Political debates, whether on social media or in-person, are becoming somewhat taboo; many people have begun to avoid these debates and are left feeling ‘worn out’ or frustrated after engaging in discussions with people they do not agree with. With the increased spread of misinformation by these bots leading to further divide between political opinions and heightened disagreement on reality versus fiction, it is easy to see why people are starting to become frustrated with political debate. While social media has had a positive impact on getting young people more engaged with politics across the globe, with 70% of 18-29 year olds stating they had gotten information from social media during the 2020 US elections, the inability to distinguish between fact and misinformation makes for an unstable foundation for debate.

The spreading of information on new policies and ideas is essential for a democratic government to function, and the growth of social media has supplied governments with a quick and efficient way to communicate and engage with their audience. That being said, social media bots may be inhibiting rather than promoting the distribution of trusted and unbiased information. Whether or not legislation on the use of social media bots is passed, technological advancements in artificial intelligence have revolutionized the use of bots on social media and across the web.

The evolution of bots is making it more difficult for traditional security measures to differentiate between bot and human traffic.  As bots become more human like, both governments and social media platforms need to ensure they implement specialist technology to continue to detect the bad bots.

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Sian is a specialist content writer at Netacea. In her current role Sian liaises with various teams within Netacea, to get an in-depth understanding of important bot and cybersecurity issues across multiple industries, and produce detailed content in line with current trends. In previous roles, Sian has produced reports and documents based on consumer insights and industry trends.
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