Social media bots cast dubious shadow over next year's elections

With Nigeria's 2019 polls getting ever nearer, politicians are employing every weapon in their arsenals and bots are their shiny new playthings.

When Cambridge Analytica's efforts to influence Nigeria's elections were made public earlier this year, many were shocked as to the length the firm (formerly SCL Elections) went to ensure the re-election victory of then-president, Goodluck Jonathan.

On the prompting of an unnamed Nigerian billionaire, the data mining firm hacked Facebook to harvest the profile of millions of users and target what was determined to be their worst fears.

In a video the firm produced, people were filmed being dismembered, having their throats cut and bled to death, and also burned to death in a bid to portray Muslims as violent and Buhari as the man that will impose Sharia Law that'll make that sort of violence commonplace in the country.

"It was voter suppression of the most crude and basic kind. It was targeted at Buhari voters in Buhari regions to basically scare the shit out of them and stop them from voting," a former Cambridge Analytica employee who worked on the campaign said.

Even though that video, and whatever the rest of Cambridge Analytica's campaign was up to, failed to stop Buhari's historic victory, it has served as a window into the underbelly of how ugly elections can sometimes get.

Politicians, or their secret billionaire friends, will stop at nothing to gain an advantage over their opponents and the means can range from vote-buying, ballot snatching to good old propaganda.

With the continued prominence of social media in the world's affairs, it's unsurprising that it has been turned into another weapon to fight political wars and battle for the most upper hand.

The rise of social media bots in the world's elections

In a recent study conducted by Portland, a strategic communications consultancy firm, it was discovered that bots, and accounts displaying machine-like behaviour, were active across ten elections that took place in Africa between May 2017 and 2018.

Bots, by their nature, are software programs that typically combine artificial intelligence with communication skills to model human behaviours and are typically programmed to amplify specific conversations on social media. They can be programmed to operate automatically or manually.

According to Samuel Woolley, a researcher, bots are used during elections to create a bandwagon effect among voters with some bots created for a specific issue during a campaign after which they're deactivated.

In Portland's study, it was discovered that bots served primarily to agitate and push negative narratives about major issues and candidates, with 53% of the leading voices on Twitter around the studied elections suspiciously coming from outside the country in which they were contested.

Bots are used to amplify specific conversations on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook with photos, videos and typically unreliable information that can be easily spread widely on the internet with the help of other bots and/or unsuspecting genuine users.

During Senegal's 2017 parliamentary election, Portland discovered that bots (18.6%) were the second most influential group on Twitter as they posted tweets that tended to be accusatory and aggressive in tone and sentiment. Lesotho has 19.8% bot activity during its own 2017 general elections.

It's hard to determine what the activities of these bots had on the electoral results in these African countries, but they are generally agreed to have had some considerable influence on the result of the United States of America's 2016 presidential election.

Eventual winner, Donald Trump, is believed to have benefited greatly from the deliberate use of bots to spread fake news to target Democrat voters who were likely to vote for his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Some of the inaccurate information strategically spread by these bot accounts include the fake news that Democrats could vote on a different day than Republicans; that Democrat voters could SMS their vote in; that Clinton had a stroke during the final week of the election; that an FBI agent associated with her email investigation was involved in a murder-suicide, and many more.

Even though pro-Trump bots are widely agreed to have caused most of the stink during the campaign, there were also bots that were pro-Clinton and doing similar work.

Bots are not just used to spread fake news; sometimes, they just amplify hyperpartisan claims which are aggressively pushed to gain wider reach and benefit whoever is pushing them.

Ikemesit Effiong, a lead analyst at SBM Intelligence, believes bots create nuisance value to fulfill whatever agenda they're set up to achieve.

"Social media bots have increasingly played an important role in the online political discourse not so much because of what they contribute but that they amplify certain aspects of an ongoing conversation favourable to the inclinations of the bots' operators.

"In other words, they can create a lot of nuisance value in favour or disfavour of a candidate, political personality or hot-button issue," he said.

The shadow of bots looms as Nigeria's election nears

With the footprints of bot activity trailing all over elections across the world, it's undoutedly something to expect to be an issue as the political campaigns for Nigeria's 2019 general elections kick into gear.

In fact, over several weeks now, Nigerians on Twitter have been complaining about accounts exhibiting suspicious bot-like behaviour. Most of these suspicious activities are attributed to accounts that are recently created and suspiciously effusive about the current administration which has been suffering a battering from Nigerians on social media.

"Crucially, their rise has tracked an increase in the polarisation of discussions around politics, the president's job performance and perhaps most importantly, the upcoming elections," Effiong observed.

Many of these accounts can be found spreading extremely partisan views/information that may be false or embarassingly exaggerated in attempts to paint candidates in favourable lights.

This is not a practice that is in any way restricted to the ruling party. Major actors in next year's elections, especially presidential aspirants, have hordes of social media bots, especially on Twitter, running their agendas for them.

This ranges from amplifying ficitious or exaggerated information intended to help their subjects, to spreading fictitious or exaggerated information that are intended to hurt political opponents.

Effiong believes these bots are most especially dangerous during election seasons becuase of how they can easily penetrate traditional news media and affect political conversations in manners that cannot be thought to be merely casual.

He said, "If you are a candidate or are backing one, you want your person to be front and centre, leading the conversation. Bots are a low cost and effective tool in delivering that kind of online traction.

"When you add the fact that other segments of the media, print, TV and radio are increasingly taking cues from social media, those effects become multiplied on an order of magnitude that transcends the social media habitat."

It's unarguable that Nigeria's Twitter is populated with bots that have been programmed to do the bidding of the highest bidders, or any bidders, for the purpose of the approaching 2019 general elections. What's left to determine is how much of an impact their activities will have on the choices of the electorate and how the election shakes out.

According to Effiong, despite the wide-ranging implications of social media bots, especially with their penetration with young Nigerians online, it's debatable how much influence they have on actual electoral results. However, he cautioned that it'd be unwise to dismiss their potential impact in the upcoming elections.

He said, "It is debatable if social media bots have a direct effect on the elections in terms of galvanising a candidate or party's base or ensuring increased turnout. Despite all this, it has often proved the case in the past that it is foolhardy to bet against the thrust of technology. 2019 might yet teach us a few things about Nigeria's political evolution."

The apparent growing trend of political bots on the internet is hard to argue against, and Nigeria appears to be the next destination to witness it in full swing. The bots are already here to shape and disrupt conversations as they see fit.

It's left to see how much of an impact they can really have on Nigerians choosing the people that'll emerge leaders at the polls next year.


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