Rise of the Machines? Examining the Influence of Social Bots on a Political Discussion Network

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bots, social media, Twitter, artificial intelligence, political communication, media politics

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The growing influence of social bots in political discussion networks has raised significant concerns, particularly given their potential to adversely impact democratic outcomes. In this study, we report the results of a case study analysis of bot activity in a recent, high-profile political discussion network. Specifically, we examine the prevalence and impact of bots in a Twitter network discussing the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Using this discussion network, we conduct a “before-and-after” analysis to examine the prevalence of social bots in the discussion network as well as their influence on key network features such as (1) network structure, (2) content/messaging, (3) sentiment, and (4) influentialness. Our findings suggest that bots can affect political discussion networks in several significant ways. We found that bot-like accounts created the appearance of a virtual community around far-right political messaging, attenuated the influence of traditional actors (i.e., media personalities, subject matter experts), and influenced network sentiment by amplifying pro-Trump messaging. The results of this analysis add to a growing body of literature on the use and influence of social bots while at the same time uniquely examining their influence in a nonelectoral, political setting.

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Social Science Computer Review, v. 40, issue 2, p. 264-287