Fake news could be one of the most potentially harmful things to democracy. With the presence of social media platforms growing more and more within the field of politics each day, there has undoubtedly been a growing number of fake news accounts popping up on social media. Social media has become plagued with bot accounts. Meaning, that these accounts are run by computer systems. And, they are usually used in order to promote extremist political views.
Catching these bot accounts is not easy, either. They are starting to imitate what accounts run by real humans look like more and more. Typically, online bots use pictures of young girls as their profile pictures, and post concentrated content, mostly just political with no posts about their social life. Go through your followers on social media after reading this. How many of the people following you could be online bots?
There are also numerous types of bots online other than social media bots as well. Download bots try to find vulnerable spots in your software to download your information and put harmful viruses onto your software. Spam bots are designed to literally spam you with certain types of content, whether it be ads or viruses (Imperva). Bots are typically bought by governments or parent companies in order to scan the web and personal software in order to do their specific jobs.
And most importantly, these bots are one of the main reasons that so much fake news and disinformation is spreading so heavily around social media. Social media bots typically take on the persona of someone heavily affiliated with extremist political views, whether they be republican or democratic. People stumbling across accounts such as these with little or no information on social bots may believe that these are real people and believe their misinformation to be factual.
One of the most recent examples of these social media bots is the bots pretending to be black, pro-Trump voters that have rampaged on Twitter. Just recently, Twitter has taken to blocking dozens of these fake accounts. According to numerous sources (Washington Post, BBC) an investigation into these accounts showed that they all post similar pro-Trump messages and used photos of real black people as profile pictures.
According to BBC, even though these fake accounts have already been removed from Twitter, they have “already had their impact” (BBC, 2020). Thus, lies the issue with fake news and disinformation within social media: the spread of this false information to so many susceptible people, and then having those people believe that false information, and potentially spread it to others.
But where do these bots come from? BBC says that they are mostly sourced from countries such as Russia, who are deliberately trying to stir up political discourse on social media. And its working. Even though these bots were removed by Twitter, hundreds of black Americans have seen the mass amount of these posts, thinking that there are way more black Americans voting for Trump than there actually are. These false accounts can have damaging effects on the polls and the pollical system of America, and other similar countries.
So, why is this issue, and many others like it, such a big issue for democracy? Why are bots pretending to be people on the internet a threat to the government of a democratic state? There are numerous answers, but one of the biggest one is the spread of misinformation to citizens by the government or other governments. This misinformation can influence the way people vote, potentially voting against democracy instead of for it. Social media bots that influence political standings of users and their political views can cause them to vote specific ways, even if it is not the ways that these users were not voting initially before seeing these bot accounts.
In summation, the use of social media bots to influence political standing could potentially lead to voter fraud, as it leads to the voters being influenced on how to vote by the government. This fake news does not allow people to think for themselves. Instead, it is almost as though the government of a state is underlyingly trying to persuade the way people vote by pretending to be average citizens.
So, what can be done to combat these social media bots? Persily and Stamos (2019) talk in depth about how the use of regulations on social media must be prevalent now more than ever. Taking Twitter removing fake black voters as an example, social media companies must create regulations and guidelines in order to protect citizens from this spread of misinformation. While this does bring in issues regarding free speech, governments creating fake accounts to pursued voters is not a problem of free speech. It borders on a problem of voter fraud. It is spreading lies to, in this case, have more minorities voting for Trump.
In conclusion, we must be aware of the things posted on social media. We cannot blindly read things that we see on the internet; instead, we must have a critical thinking regarding what we are reading and what other people are posting. And always be mindful of who you’re following, and who’s following you. They might just be a bot!