Computational Propaganda in the United States of America: Manufacturing Consensus Online
As part of our new country case study series, project members Sam Woolley and Doug Guilbeault investigated the use of bots and other false amplifiers in the US.
Do bots have the capacity to influence the flow of political information over social media? This working paper answers this question through two methodological avenues: A) a qualitative analysis of how political bots were used to support United States presidential candidates and campaigns during the 2016 election, and B) a network analysis of bot influence on Twitter during the same event. Political bots are automated software programs that operate on social media, written to mimic real people in order to manipulate public opinion. The qualitative findings are based upon nine months of fieldwork on the campaign trail, including interviews with bot makers, digital campaign strategists, security consultants, campaign staff, and party officials. During the 2016 campaign, a bipartisan range of domestic and international political actors made use of political bots. The Republican Party, including both self-proclaimed members of the “alt-right” and mainstream members, made particular use of these digital political tools throughout the election. Meanwhile, public conversation from campaigners and government representatives is inconsistent about the political influence of bots. This working paper provides ethnographic evidence that bots affect information flows in two key ways: 1) by “manufacturing consensus,” or giving the illusion of significant online popularity in order to build real political support, and 2) by democratizing propaganda through enabling nearly anyone to amplify online interactions for partisan ends. We supplement these findings with a quantitative network analysis of the influence bots achieved within retweet networks of over 17 million tweets, collected during the 2016 US election. The results of this analysis confirm that bots reached positions of measurable influence during the 2016 US election. Ultimately, therefore, we find that bots did affect the flow of information during this particular event. This mixed-method approach shows that bots are not only emerging as a widely-accepted tool of computational propaganda used by campaigners and citizens, but also that bots can influence political processes of global significance.
Citation: Samuel C. Woolley & Douglas Guilbeault, “Computational Propaganda in the United States of America: Manufacturing Consensus Online.” Samuel Woolley and Philip N. Howard, Eds. Working Paper 2017.5. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda. comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk<http://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/>. 27 pp.
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