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The political landscape on either side of the Atlantic has rarely felt as divided as it does today. Opinions are entrenched and the discourse suggests that conclusions must be binary, that there is no middle ground.
That may be a reflection of circumstance. The issues surrounding Brexit and President Trump, for example, are far from ordinary; heated debate is to be expected. But it’s also down to the way that political discourse has changed in line with the emergence of social media as a platform for discussion.
On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – to name a few – newsfeeds are populated with images, articles, and musings based on a user’s engagement history. These platforms fight for our attention by giving us more of what we’ve liked in the past.
Political content on contentious issues can go viral around election time, while social media platforms’ content serving algorithms reinforce views on either side, creating self-perpetuating echo chambers.
Inevitably, the way in which social media platforms are open to manipulation has been harnessed by those seeking to distort political discourse for their own ends. Macedonian teenagers are thought to have made a fortune through advertising revenue by publishing fake stories around the 2016 US election, and Cambridge Analytica has profited from targeted political campaigns based on Facebook user data.
And those attacks on the democratic process are only going to become smarter and more subversive, particularly as the anonymity of social media users makes it tough to separate fact from fiction online.
The University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project has studied countless examples of social media manipulation, recently publishing a report arguing that “the manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms has emerged as a critical threat to public life.”
In an article for MIT Technology Review, Lisa-Maria Neudert, doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute and a researcher with the Computational Propaganda Project, suggested that the increasing sophistication of ‘Bot accounts’ – automated, AI-powered accounts masquerading as real people – means that the worst is still to come.
It’s a straightforward process for nation states and political campaigns to build an army of bot accounts that will amplify certain viewpoints online. And it’s not just about repetitively posting fake news or extremist opinions. It can be more subtle than that: sharing and liking content from genuine accounts; adding to the pool of interactions, gaming the algorithms, and fanning the flames of controversy.
At the moment it’s relatively easy to spot a fake social media account. They tend to be triggered by keywords and engage with boilerplate responses. The telltale signs include clunky language, repetitive posts, a default profile picture, and staunch support for Vladimir Putin are all fairly obvious clues. Twitter has moved to take down millions of suspicious accounts in the past year.
But these profiles will become smarter and more evasive in time, particularly given advances in natural-language processing. One fear is that the type of AI technology driving Amazon’s Alexa, Google Duplex, and Microsoft’s Cortana could help bots pass off as human with increasing ease.
Many tech giants have made open-source algorithms for natural-language processing available to developers, opening the door to a new wave of convincing propaganda bots.
The future of social media manipulation
Neudert argues that conversational bots will soon become more targeted, and “seek out susceptible users and approach them over private chat channels. They’ll eloquently navigate conversations and analyze a user’s data to deliver customized propaganda. Bots will point people toward extremist viewpoints and counter-arguments in a conversational manner.”
Rather than broadcasting propaganda to everyone, these bots will direct their activity at influential people or political dissidents. They’ll attack individuals with scripted hate speech, overwhelm them with spam, or get their accounts shut down by reporting their content as abusive,” she predicts.
It’s a frightening prospect. Since 2010 political parties and governments have ploughed over half a billion dollars into social-media manipulation. It seems as though the industry is only just getting started.
Social media platforms have enabled free speech and debate on a level never seen before. The irony is that they are also open to mass manipulation, and that we were naive to assume it would only be humans taking part.
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