Bots, short for robots, generate messages daily that constitute 60 percent of web traffic. The automated programs are all over the internet. Some run free but others wait for an “execute” command. They come in different types like web crawlers, chat room bots, and malicious bots. (Click) Silicon Valley has been promoting bots as the next wave in social interchange.(Blog 4/14/16) But, according to writers Samuel Woolley and Phil Howard, when used in political campaigns to generate messages or give the impression of a groundswell, bots pose a threat to democracy. (“Twitterbots United,” by Samuel Woolley and Phil Howard, Wired, May 2016, pg. 18.)
In 2010, when Newt Gingrich campaigned for president, his managers bought over a million fake followers. (Blog 7/1/15). That is no small army to create an illusion concerning a candidate’s popularity. What’s more, the practice of using bots has grown. Woolley and Howard estimate there are “tens of millions of them on Twitter alone.” (Ibid pg. 18.)
No legislation exists or is in the pipeline to regulate this technology. Nor do social media sites like Facebook and Twitter do much about the abuse. Generally, “they tend to wait for users to report suspicious activity and have a patchy record when it comes to stopping harmful propaganda.” (Ibid Pg. 18) Like the world in my novel, Trompe l’Oeil, the line between illusion and reality is becoming dangerously thin.
In a recent article for Intercept, Edward Snowden reminds us surveillance technology is also growing. Already, governments can tag us, not simply as individuals, but as whole populations, as if we were wild game. (Click) We enable this surveillance because we’ve fallen in love with devices that constantly betray us, broadcasting where we are, our movements and the thoughts we share at any given point in time.
I don’t see a way to stop the advance of technology, nor should we try. But even if we wished to, we can’t legislate against every social ill. To do so throws us back in to the arms of agencies, like the NSA, we might one day come to fear. When dealing with advances in technology, people must weigh the effect for themselves and act accordingly. Nonetheless, Silicon Valley needs to take some responsibility. First and foremost, voters should be permitted to identify bots that are spreading political messages