A new academic study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that Twitter bots, automated social accounts that post content, likely generated enough activity to sway the outcome of both the 2016 Brexit vote and the last US presidential election.
Economist Yuriy Gorodnichenko from the University of California-Berkley and two researchers Swansea College in Wales, UK concluded that “given narrow margins of victories in each vote, bots’ effect was likely marginal but possibly large enough to affect the outcomes.”
While the Cambridge Analytica scandal focuses mostly on the use of stolen Facebook data – which also manipulated public opinion in ways that haven’t been fully quantified – this study finds that automated activity on Twitter alone was probably enough to produce an impact that swung real-life votes in the 2016 US presidential election towards Donald Trump. The study says:
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Our analysis… suggests that a percentage point increase in the share of pro-Trump tweets in total tweets is associated with a 0.59 percentage point increase in the share of actual pro-Trump votes.
Therefore, the observed difference between actual and counterfactual pro-Trump tweet shares suggests that 3.23 percentage points of the actual vote could be rationalized with the influence of bots.
Twitter admitted that up to 50,000 Russian bots were pumping out content about the last presidential election on its platform, and has recently begun taking steps to ban the kinds of activities they used to influence western elections.
The study’s authors cited academic research which strongly that “tweet intensity” may have both a predictive power in the results of elections. The international team of economists also noted that bot activity caused a corresponding surge of human activity that crested about 50 minutes after automated posts were published to Twitter and lasted for up to two hours.
Twitter bot automated posts increased partisan activity, which led to higher polarization rates in real people who reacted to bots, and also increased the amount of interaction by the human being, partisan voters on the social network.
UK voters experienced a similar phenomenon on Twitter during the Brexit vote, which the study’s authors explained could have accounted for much of the winning margin of the Leave campaigns, even without factoring other aspects of that campaign. The study concluded:
The Brexit outcome was decided by a small margin (the share of “leave” votes was at 51.9 percent). Our analysis… indicates that a percentage point increase in the share of pro-“leave” tweets in total tweets is associated with a 0.85 percentage point increase in the share of actual pro-“leave” votes, [which] could translate into 1.76 percentage points of actual pro-“leave” vote share.
Thus, while bots nearly offset each other, the difference could have been sufficiently large to influence the outcome given how close the actual vote was.
Well over 1/3rd of President Trump’s Twitter followers are fake and recently, numerous conservative pundits made a commotion when Twitter deleted millions of fake accounts, lowering their follower counts dramatically.
Fake accounts have long plagued Twitter but used to be considered more of a commercial threat. But the use of fake followers to pump up one’s social media “resume” used a vast network of automated bot accounts, which we’ve now learned could be “taught” to do more than just following people.
Social media platforms have revolutionized the speed at which information moves around the world and how people share data, and with whom. But the 2016 elections showed that privacy and elections laws remain sorely outdated to address modern interactions between voters and political campaigns.
The NBER’s report about the impact of Twitter bots on elections should be a wakeup call to the general public about the importance of social media as a platform for swaying public perception, and ultimately votes.
The Trump campaign has been caught infamously soliciting digital campaign assistance from both Russia and just this weekend from a consortium of Saudi and Gulf Arab states, and this academic study concludes that at least some of that foreign assistance paid off.