Social media has become a part of many Canadian’s daily lives. With a wide variety of platforms to choose from and the ability to access it all from the smartphone in your pocket, it’s no wonder that over 60% of Canadians are using these services.
While many users might think that social media is connecting them with genuine people, the reality is that many online ‘users’ are actually bots – and 1 in 5 of us are accepting friend requests from them.
What is a Bot?
Social media bots are built to look like real users. You might think that you’d be able to spot a bot, but 30% of people are deceived by them. The use of social media to manipulate public opinion has become important enough that a Canadian parliamentary committee questioned Facebook Canada on how the company will start better protecting Canadians online.
One study found evidence of ‘amplifier bots’ being used in both the 2015 federal election and the 2017 provincial election in British Columbia. The fake accounts identified would tweet and retweet messages that negatively targeted specific candidates. While the study was unable to prove that the bots changed the end results of these elections, it noted that bots are likely to become more established and could potentially affect Canada as they have other countries.
Types of political bots in Canada (source)
- Dampener: stifles a particular voice or message
- Amplifier: promotes a particular voice or message
- Servant: performs mundane or repetitive tasks for another individual or group
- Transparency: collects and makes available information to hold other groups or individuals accountable
But fake user accounts aren’t the only kind of bots out there that are trying to change public opinion.
“The official definition of a bot is an autonomous agent,” says Dr. Thomas P. Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary who helped the Canadian government write its computer crime laws in 1983.
“This is a program that does things while you sleep or while you’re not paying attention to it. They’re used for advertising, they’re used for political purposes, a lot of the time they’re even used to discredit people.”
Leading up to the Olympic plebiscite in Calgary, the city solicited feedback through an online portal to learn about public opinion. 6,000 responses, or 46 per cent of the total responses provided, were deleted due to concerns surrounding bot activity.
Keenan says that the deleted responses were automatically generated. “I think what happened was the same IP address sending the same thing over and over, and that’s a rookie mistake,” Keenan says. “The ones that got through in Calgary I think were pretty simple-minded ones where somebody just tweeted over and over again.”
How Are Bots So Effective?
Bots are successful due to more than just the volume of messages that go out. Partisanship is becoming a big issue in Canada, and the gap between political polarities is widening.
Bots capitalize on the biases that people already hold. As social media users like pages, follow other users, or share links and news, they create a network for themselves. If it is your first time hearing about a topic, you’re more likely to believe the first piece of information you receive and keep believing it. Combine this with a confirmation bias, which makes it less likely for individuals to change their minds even in the face of concrete evidence, and you can see how widespread misinformation in an online platform can quickly become a problem.
While people aren’t likely to label themselves as biased, one study shows that being surrounded by similar opinions will result in an individual’s beliefs becoming more polarized. In the age of social media algorithms, where users are being shown targeted material to capitalize on the biases they already hold, the proverbial echo chamber is becoming increasingly dangerous.
As Canadian politics are digitally transformed, it is essential for the public to scrutinize messages seen online. Bots are often difficult to identify and track back to a source. Media literacy in the age of social media needs public awareness of where these messages originate from, and why they are being spread.