Are bots, clickbait and alternative facts reprogramming your mind?

We are delighted to welcome Sam Woolley, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute based at the University of Oxford, to the Academy. He specialises in the study of automation and politics, with special interests in political communication and science and technology studies. Sam will explain the various tools that can be manipulated on social media sites to drive public opinion, create a new version of the ‘truth’ and how minority views are amplified and sometimes legitimised online. His work on bots and public opinion has been published in several academic journals and collections such as Wired, the Washington Post, the Economist and Bloomberg. Sam is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at the University of Washington in the Department of Communication. He has a Master of Arts in Cultural Studies from the Claremont Graduate University and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of San Diego.

Mishcon Academy
Tech Talks: Are bots, clickbait and alternative facts reprogramming your mind?

Sam Woolley
Director of Research, Computational Propaganda Project
Oxford Internet Institute

Today we talked about the ways that bots, automation, algorithms and a lot of other tools on social media get used to manipulate public opinion during key political events.  So, the big question is, is there an effect, how does it effect voting, how does it effect our democracies?  We talked about the United States and the use of bots during the 2016 election, we also mentioned Brexit several times and whether or not bots were used then and, finally, we talked about the Ukraine and how it’s been a testing ground for Russian propaganda techniques.

A bot is an automated software programme that’s used to do something that a human would otherwise have to do online.  We often talk about ‘social bots’ which are automated social media profiles, they look like real people and act like real people and but they are actually automated.

Clickbait is a salacious, kind of crazy, headline that gets people to click on it with the goal of them often times subverting their public opinion or changing what they feel or think or believe.

Alternative facts is basically a way of talking about objectivity and arguing that there’s lots of different viewpoints.

The last question that we had was how Google and Facebook and Twitter are demonised in all of this and whether or not that’s fair or what we should do there and I think that they’ve scaled really quickly, that they’ve grown very fast and that we should understand that there is some kind of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing but I think that they are increasingly coming to the table and trying to do their best to understand these problems and that they’re big problems and we have to have some patience.

So what should Facebook, Google and Twitter do?  My response is, we can’t only allow them to self-regulate, we need to have Governments do something but we also need the firms to take these ethical questions seriously and begin to design for democracy.