How automated Twitter accounts can encourage activism

twitter-automationI’ve written a number of times about slacktavists and their impact on charitable and social ventures online, although recent studies suggest they may actually be crucial after all.

This potential could extend to artificial agents online.  A recent study, led by Microsoft, suggests that Twitter bots could play a crucial in social campaigns in future, with the study achieving strong results in a test conducted in Latin America.

The rise of the botivist

“We wanted to make it really easy for activists to reach out into large crowds and be able to recruit people and get them to start contributing to their cause without having to invest much time,” the authors say.

The bots would tweet people with a number of different phrases around corruption and impunity, with each tweet containing various calls to action.  The bots would also attempts to build communities by encouraging various individuals to join together.

So, how successful were they?  It emerged that the bots would receive a reply around half of the time, with direct requests for participation the most successful, having achieved an impressive reply rate of 81%.

People are happy to be botted

A few years ago I wrote about a study whereby people were engaged with in a similar way by a bot, and most people didn’t really seem to know that they were talking with an automated account.

This latest effort made no attempt to hide this fact, and ensured that ‘bot’ was highlighted in both the handle and the profile description for the account.

Interestingly, the most negative reactions to the account came when the bot attempted to sound more human.  For instance, if the account expressed solidarity with potential volunteers, the response rate plummeted to just 21%.

“People actually started questioning whether bots should be involved in this kind of initiative and stopped participating,” the authors say.

An increasing use of automated accounts

The study was inspired by the apparent increase in the use of automated accounts by political leaders.  For instance, the Mexican president Enrique Peña Nietobolstered his recent campaign by utilizing Twitter bots.

When Twitter began to get heated over the disappearance of students in 2014, he deployed bots to post a deluge of junk tweets with the same or related hashtags.

Whilst that was an undoubtedly negative use of the method, the authors wanted to explore whether it could also be used for positive means.

Eventually, it’s hoped that the tool will be rolled out for real world campaigns, with the likes of PETA already signed up to trial the system.  The authors believe it could even be used by companies like Wikipedia to find new contributors.

They think, for instance, that it could help to locate potential volunteers who may ordinarily have been unaware of activism opportunities.  It could even be used in a kind of whistleblowing capacity, alerting the wider public to midemeanours or terrorist incidents, without citizens having to put their name in the open.

Undoubtedly one of the more interesting features of the system is to connect activists up together.  This ability to create networks and communities could be very useful, especially as the system is capable of delegating levels of authority based upon the interactions had with it.

“They might just need a little push to get involved … and really do things that have an impact in a city and even countrywide,” the authors conclude.


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