Can Canadians spot a political bot? Fair elections may depend on it

The use of bots to sway political opinions is only going to become more prevalent, and some argue it's time political parties came clean about how they use them.
Most people have heard of bots, but aren't quite sure what they are, one researcher argues. (Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson)
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Do you know what a bot looks like?

Most people don't, according to Ben Nimmo, and as they become more prevalent in Canadian politics, that might be a problem.

Bots are fake accounts online, created to look like normal users, for example, on Twitter. They are then used to like or retweet something, often in the thousands (also known as a bot herd). Real people pick up on the tweet, sharing it further, and pushing it to the top of trending lists, putting it in front of even more people.

"People have sort of heard of bots, but they're not really quite sure what they are, or whether they're a bad thing," said Nimmo, a senior fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council.

The content they promote isn't always true.

"A tweet which has a couple of thousand tweets within a few minutes tends to carry this false air of credibility," Nimmo told The Current's guest host Gillian Findlay.

"Real users will look at it and think: 'Wow. that's got a couple of thousand retweets already. ... It must be an interesting story.'"

Ben Nimmo tells Gillian Findlay how he became the target of a bot attack. 2:38

Even if normal users do check who is retweeting the content, they can't always tell it's a bot. Sometimes two users will get into an argument online, accusing each other of being bots.

"If you're having an argument with it, it's almost certain not to be a bot," said Nimmo.

"99 per cent of bots do retweets, and likes and follows," he added. "They don't write their own content."

Nimmo pointed to an example from the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A quote from a leaked email was taken out of context, and twisted to make it look like one of Hillary Clinton's advisers blamed her for the death of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi.

That quote was tweeted, and later picked up by a herd of bots, which gave it thousands of retweets. Real users began picking up on it and sharing it further. Hours later, Donald Trump quoted it in a campaign rally that was broadcast live on national television.

"If the bots hadn't intervened and given it that initial shove," Nimmo said, "it is very unlikely that that story would have gained traction."

Elizabeth Dubois has conducted research into the use of bots in Canadian politics. (@lizdubois/Twitter)

Are bots coming to Canada?

Elizabeth Dubois, an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa, says she's found evidence of bots being used in Canadian politics.

Dubois was involved in a study of the PC leadership race in Ontario, which found suspicious activity around the hashtag #CrookedChristine.

"What we found was a range of different accounts that were all tweeting ... negative things about Christine Elliott, [and] positive things about the Ford Nation campaign," she said.

They realized the accounts were all brand new, and had been created within 15 minutes of each other. They had stock images for profile pictures, and very basic descriptions.

They weren't able to find out who created the accounts, she said, but the attempt wasn't very successful.

Not all bots are bad though. Some combat copyright infringement, some provide transparency on tweets deleted by politicians, and some can even help you find better deals when you shop online.

Dublois doesn't think bots should be banned outright, but she warns that malicious bots could become more prevalent in Canadian politics. She wants parties to be transparent about the bots they're using to disseminate information, so they can be held to account.

Ultimately, she said, people need to be discerning when they see information online.

"You need to be aware that political bots exist," she said, "and that whether or not the political parties sign on to a code of conduct, they are going to be used."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler, Samira Mohyeddin and Howard Goldenthal.

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