How robots could shape Germany's political future

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How robots could shape Germany's political future
Photo: DPA

"Social Bots" were the sinister cyber friend in the US elections who didn't actually exist. Could they also shape how Germans vote next year?


On November 17th, American Right Now decided to once again tweet a clear statement of support for Donald Trump.

It seems innocuous enough until one thinks that this tweet was posted eight days after Trump won the US election.

There's also the question of why an account that is only five years old boasts an impressive 540,000 tweets. The account also consistently posts a new tweet within ten minutes of its last, even sometimes tweeting twice within the same minute.

That's because American Right Now isn't a real person. It is a robot account, otherwise known as a "Social Bot", an automated account that posts on social media platforms in an attempt to influence the puiblic mood.

Who is behind American Right Now and other such bots is not clear. As The Atlantic pointed out, neither the Trump campaign nor that of his rival Hillary Clinton claimed any responsibility for bots which supported them.

What is clear is that is that American Right Now is far from alone. So called “Bot Armies” had a huge online presence during the US presidential debates.

Photo: DPA.

In the first of these debates, over a third of all pro-Trump traffic was driven by bots and highly automated accounts, while 22 percent of pro-Clinton traffic came from bots, according to Oxford University Professor Philip Howard.

In fact, of all the tweets posted during the first two debates, one in four came from a Twitter bot.

But it's not just in the US that robots have been voicing political views.

In the period leading up to the Brexit vote in the UK in June, a third of the 1.5 million tweets with referendum related hashtags were generated by only 1 percent of accounts, indicating that large numbers of these were bots, according to Howard's research.

These partisan bots inflate support for candidates, distort that candidates' popularity and subsequently influence online opinion of how well they have performed, the Oxford professor claims.

What Germany could expect

And now there are worrying signs that this Orwellian addition to the election cycle could come to Germany when it holds national elections next year.

The right-wing AfD party (Alternative for Germany) has indicated that they intend to use social bots during campaigning.

AfD executive committee member Alice Weidel told Spiegel on October 21st, “naturally we will consider using social bots as part of our election campaign strategy”, adding that social media platforms were especially important for new political parties trying to spread their message to voters.

However, in a statement posted to their website a few days later, Weidel and the AfD changed their tune, denying they would use social bots in the elections.

AfD's Alice Weidel. Photo: DPA.

Despite Weidel and the AfD distancing themselves from her original statement, German politicians were quick to criticise any potential use of the technology.

Peter Tauber, Secretary General of Angela Merkel's CDU (Christian Democrat Union), announced that the government has recently commissioned a study into the potential dangers of social bots.

All the parties currently represented in the Bundestag (German parliament) meanwhile have confirmed that they will not use the technology.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière recently called social bots “an insidious use of the internet that we need to bring transparency to”, building pressure on parties not to use them in general election campaigning next year.

Andree Thieltges, a social media researcher at the University of Siegen, spoke with The Local about the impact such bots could have on upcoming German elections.

He noted that, while so far there has been no large scale use of social bots in German election campaigns, it remains to be seen whether they will be deployed in the 2017 elections.

"It has not yet been explored, whether these bots influence voting behaviour. But alongside any direct influence, there is the potential danger that analysis of political trends could be distorted by social bots, and therefore influence election campaigns."

By Charley-Kai John

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