back to article Oxford profs tell Twitter, Facebook to take action against political bots

The use of algorithms and bots to spread political propaganda is "one of the most powerful tools against democracy", top academics have warned. A team led by professors at the Oxford Internet Institute analysed tens of millions of posts on seven social media platforms in nine countries, including the US, Russia and Germany, …

  1. Anonymous Coward

    Political Bots.

    "Meanwhile, "political campaigns, and their supporters, deploy political bots – and computational propaganda more broadly – during elections in attempts to sway the vote or defame critics" and run coordinated disinformation campaigns and troll opponents."

    We used to call them "newspapers"

  2. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Re: Political Bots.

    Yep. Can't have Ordinary People diluting Murdoch's power now, can we?

  3. Drat

    Re: Political Bots.

    "Yep. Can't have Ordinary People diluting Murdoch's power now, can we?"

    Totally agree that Murdoch et al have been playing us ordinary people, and it is good to see their power reduce. Sadly, this is about other powerful people/states/organisations at work, and as usual it is the ordinary people who get played once again.

  4. sebt

    Re: Political Bots.

    "Can't have Ordinary People diluting Murdoch's power now, can we?"

    If I had my Murdoch wouldn't have his power diluted - he'd be forcibly blasted into another universe, preferably one where you can't swing a cat because the dimensions are all crunched up.

    But these bots aren't a solution to centralised media power. They're deployed by people exactly like Murdoch (if not by him himself), and trade on the illusion that they are in fact "Ordinary People".

  5. Dazed and Confused Silver badge

    Re: Political Bots.

    > We used to call them "newspapers"

    Most people know the political leanings of the different newspapers, most make no secret of who they support. Newspapers are also some extent answerable to the press complaints bodies, at least in theory.

    With online sources there is no knowing and no one to complain to and no recourse.

  6. DougS Silver badge

    Re: Political Bots.

    The biases are also made clear by the bylines on opinion articles. You know a George Will article will be conservative, etc. You don't have to worry about George Will writing articles under a bunch of different names trying to make it seem like a lot of people share his opinion, but that's easy to do with Twitter bots. The cost to run them is so negligible compared to the cost of campaigns in the US, or how much money you can extract through corrupt means in authoritarian countries, that of course you'll see them used more and more.

  7. werdsmith Silver badge

    Re: Political Bots.

    I've noticed that democracy has not caught up with modern media, it's not just the popular social media platforms where idiots have believed obvious lies and repeated them for more idiots to do the same.

    The various comments sections are also full of what I assumed to be paid activists.

    Even here on Register I've seen people who have swallowed the BS and try to convince others of the same.

    It's so disappointing.

  8. TRT Silver badge

    Many warnings through the last century...

    of the dangers of algocracy.

  9. malle-herbert Silver badge


    Trump is a political bot now ?

  10. DougS Silver badge

    Re: So...

    A buggy one, since his tweets conflict with his own positions/interests on a regular basis.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They were looking at computational propaganda, which is defined as the way algorithms, automation and human curation are used to purposefully distribute misinformation on social media networks.

    Question, who defines misinformation? After all, one parties 'truth' is most probably another's 'misinformation' and vice versa. It all depends on your own political viewpoint.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How about something more objective: fact versus falsity? If people are willing to deny facts even if in front of their faces, then humanity has a whole has a bigger problem.

  13. sebt
    Thumb Down

    Nope, the truth is not relative

    Sorry, no, the facts (unlike the slant given to them) are not relative but absolute.

    And a major part of the impact of these propaganda bots lies not in the (generally idiotic) views these bots "hold" and spread, but in the pretence that these are actual individual human beings holding (generally idiotic) opinions, rather than the offspring of a single person or organisation who wants to give the impression of popular support.

    It's not a matter of pure disinformation. The target is not readers' knowledge, but their morale: if "everyone" is against them, why bother any more?

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    "It's not a matter of pure disinformation. The target is not readers' knowledge, but their morale: if "everyone" is against them, why bother any more?"

    Because some are heroic enough to make the stand: to be the one against a world gone mad. After all, it only takes ONE to challenge a law in the courts, and there HAVE been occasions when the one has won (Brown v. Topeka BoE for example). Isolating them only strengthens their resolve, so your only solution is to break them, to hit them back SO hard they're on the verge of suicide: to the point they not only WON'T continue but they CAN'T continue: their bodies and minds unable to take any further strain.

  15. DJO Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    Whilst the "truth" is not relative it does rely on context.

    An unrelated uncontentious example:

    Water contains 66.6% hydrogen

    Water contains 11.8% hydrogen

    Both statements are completely true.

    1st by number of atoms, 2nd by mass.

    In the political arena the problem is the same, statistics without a baseline are worthless.

  16. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    There are big Grey Areas.

    Any campaigning politician will maintain levels of ambiguity and plausible deniability on many matters likely to be controversial. Sometimes rightly so, like when being pressed to answer a "Have you stopped beating your wife" question. Did you notice in the recent campaign, the Tory campaign centred on (things they said about) Corbyn? That appears to have backfired: it was just too blatant, but if Corbyn had risen to the bait and spent his time denying things that were (often-misleading spin) but not outright lies, he'd've been crushed by it.

    Or consider the "Melanie Phillips translation": you take something said in a foreign language and translate it into something monstrous in English.

    I could go on. But not here.

  17. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    "Water contains 66.6% hydrogen

    Water contains 11.8% hydrogen"

    Neither is a statement of fact. A statement of fact would include whether by weight or by number of atoms.

  18. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    Neither is a statement of fact. A statement of fact would include whether by weight or by number of atoms.

    Did anyone claim a statement of fact? All he said is that they are true statements. In the right context (like in answer to a question that defines the terms), they might also be statements of fact.

    It's a long time since I sat exams, but I'm still plagued by this kind of ambiguity if I take a survey or go to a pub quiz.

  19. DougS Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    Since when has politics been about facts? Ideally you make true statements, leaving out context like the claims about hydrogen percentage. If necessary you make false statements, and hope that repeating them often enough will make your followers believe they are true. In the face of facts to th contrary, you can claim a conspiracy against you by the media, the party apparatus, soft money ads from outsiders, etc.

  20. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    "Did anyone claim a statement of fact? All he said is that they are true statements."

    That's the point. They were statements but meaningless because they were incomplete. You have to be prepared to examine statements critically in order to understand what they actually mean - which might not be the same as what they appear to say.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    Truth is subjective while facts are objective. The facts of lives of George Washington and Benedict Arnold are fixed while the truth of which was a traitor depend greatly on viewpoint.

  22. tom dial Silver badge

    Re: Nope, the truth is not relative

    Would a political bot oriented to spread alarm about global warming, then, be somehow better than some others? Once we go beyond T&C prohibition of bots generally, it is fairly clear that which bots are allowable becomes an extremely political question, one that in the US the government generally cannot regulate. More specifically, with limited exceptions, the government may not, unless and until the first amendment is rewritten significantly, restrict speech based on truth value, and that probably is true of programs like the bots Wooley and Guilbeault describe in their paper on the subject as exemplified in the US 2016 presidential election.

  23. Scott Broukell

    Democracy is also rather dependent upon people being able to think and make judgements for themselves. Or maybe it's just easier to follow the flocks as they sail by on social media. From youth I was always encouraged to, and still do, read a broad range of material (mostly newspapers, as mentioned above), and strongly advised to take everything with a pinch of salt. Salt is a vital dietary requirement but I can see that following the vast amounts of questionable material that is spewed out on social media would very likely only lead to potentially fatal quantities of said salt being taken. A vicious circle indeed, or maybe a vortex of democro-cyber-doom. Dangle anything in front of folks eyes (screens), these days and you will get many bites, phishing scammers know this very well.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Democracy is also rather dependent upon people being able to think and make judgements for themselves. Or maybe it's just easier to follow the flocks as they sail by on social media."

    As they say, reality intrudes. Once one is actually in the working world, one finds there's little time for critical thinking. No, it's "Up, Work, Home, TV, Bed," ad nauseum.

  25. wolfetone Silver badge

    Didn't know The Daily Fail and The S*n were political bots.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't worry

    Al Grauniad, Mirror, Independent, Evening Standard, Metro, i, BBC and other lefty bots are already countering them with misinformation...

  27. wolfetone Silver badge

    Re: Don't worry


    I mean, I only raise the point after they printed a clear photo of the poor guy who's fridge exploded in the Grenfell Tower fire - but then print a blurred out photo of the absolute f**king dickhead who drove his van in to those muslim guys outside a mosque the other day. Not to mention they referred to the incident as (and I quote):

    "White van driver injures at least 10 people after plouging in to a crowd outside London's Finsbury Park mosque where hate cleric Abu Hamza one preached as Muslims finish their evening prayers"

    No wonder you're an AC, internet persona imitating life eh?

  28. This post has been deleted by its author

  29. sebt


    "Didn't know The Daily Fail and The S*n were political bots."

    They are, of course. The difference is that they don't pretend to be a mass of individual people all agreeing. At most they pretend to reflect the views of "most people", but the illusion that they actually do is pretty easily dispelled.

    So perhaps political social-media bots are just too new. No-one's got used to discounting any on-line commenter's claim to be a real person, in the way that we've got used to discounting the idea that what's in the newspapers is the real truth and only the truth. That would mean that we've got to get used to social media being polluted. I'd rather we didn't have to, personally.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Don't worry

    I'm not the original poster btw, I'm usually the AC that posts something stupid and sometimes insightful (at least I like to think so)

    Human nature falls back to it's roots which is an eye for an eye (it's makes everyone blind in case anyone is really that thick)

    There is no left or right, these are constructs created to pigeon hole you into a way of thinking and giving you beliefs that fit with them.

    If you can't see what is going on then you are struggling to understand the true nature of the media and information.

    I am the oracle (the shitty alternative to teletext)

  31. sebt
    Thumb Up

    Re: Don't worry

    "I am the oracle (the shitty alternative to teletext)"

    Well, Lord Buckethead promises to bring back Ceefax. He's got my vote!

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The more I read about fake news the more fake news I see in the mainstream media.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But is it fake news or real news others are telling you is fake news? Or is it fake news others are telling you is real news that others still are telling you is fake news?

    Oi! Libel all the way down!

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's fake real news of course.

    Glad I could clear that one up.

  35. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Your awareness of fake news has been raised.

    I don't know how old you are, but think back from now to when you were first old enough to take an interest in news/politics/current affairs, and contemplate how many stories that may have influenced your life may have been at least misleading.

    Like 30 years of Murdoch and others (like the convicted fraudster Conrad Black who used to own the Telegraph) consistently spinning against the EU.

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Old enough to remember Maxwell.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "It's fake real news of course."

    Is it? Or is it real fake news? Or is it fake real fake real news? Or is it real fake real fake news? Or is it real real fake fake news to create an anti-anti-fake news-fake news campaign?

    Hell, how can you trust only what you see with your own eyes when even your own eyes fake things? If that's the case, which way is up, for God's sake?

  38. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Let's just call them Anti-social Media and have done with it. As they deteriorate to white noise maybe we should ask if their time has passed.

  39. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Hello? Ghost of Usenet here. Hello???

  40. TRT Silver badge


  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Facebook and Twitter Audience

    Considering the targets, I'm reminded of a quote from Huck Finn along the lines of: "Don't we have all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that the majority in any town?"

  42. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Lose the Plot, Create A.N.Other Ab Fab Fabless Reality/Alternate Existence. With IT, it's Easy

    Regarding those professors and their indignant rage against the unfolding and unnerving algorithm machine, why is it that they are so dumb about the current virtual money incumbent? Is it that they have been bought with fiat paper, or is their silence due to a lack of intelligence supply on their part or because of a lack of information supply from others?

    If the cap fits, wear the following fedora, for it is currently the height of fashion is it not? …..

    amanfromMars [1607201950] …… replying to Perplexed Pete and shining a light into the darkness on

    Now please note that ZERO politicians speak out about this. ZERO news agencies cover this. ZERO courts are willing to hear challenges. ZERO public schools teach this. Even the writer(s) of the above article seem oblivious to the truth. Why? ….. Perplexed Pete

    Because general knowledge of the truth would be an explosive precursor to the bloody demise of all corrupting bankers and their political lackeys, Perplexed Pete, and that surely must constantly terrify them and their supporters, especially now in these uncertain and dynamic times of crazy lone wolf operators in search of destroying old systems and entering virgin rich heavens ….. Virtual States of Nirvana.

    But such has been known since a long time ago, and that surely means that they all be just surviving on borrowed time …….

    It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning. …. Henry Ford

    If the System had any common sense or greater intelligence of its own, would it change its odd and old oppressive and suppressive ways to something altogether more engaging and encouraging. But the Machine appears to be as stupid as it is dumb and lifeless.

    "Give me control of a nation's money and I care not who makes it's laws" — Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild ….. “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.” - Thomas Jefferson …… So there you have it. Money is more powerful and dangerous than both laws and standing armies. And credit is debt.

    Hmmm? …. Is debt then credit and deficit used for equity and liquidity in pyramid slush funding of ponzi operations and political inept missions? Yes, it sure is, no matter how many times you say it is not because it is an inconvenient universal truth.

  43. cantankerous swineherd Silver badge

    the bots are going to have to do some running to catch up with the BBC.

  44. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    May Bots Run Riot and Exploit CHAOS*

    the bots are going to have to do some running to catch up with the BBC. ... cantankerous swineherd

    Are you suggesting, cantankerous swineherd, that the BBC are leaders in such matters as program the masses to believe daily moving pictures/strange news with novel views presented, to move everything on into a future position which does not mimic the past?

    The evidence currently being delivered daily would surely certainly prove something entirely different and quite pathetic.

    Do you think the failure and problem is systemic and due to serial ineffectual and unimaginative top tiers of micro and macro management of perception at the corporation? Minnows basking in the sees of sharks?

    *Clouds Hosting Advanced Operating Systems

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