Rise of the Machines? Examining the Influence of Social Bots on a Political Discussion Network

Loni Hagen, Stephen Neely, Thomas E. Keller, Ryan Scharf, Fatima Espinoza Vasquez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations

Abstract

The growing influence of social bots in political discussion networks has raised significant concerns, particularly given their potential to adversely impact democratic outcomes. In this study, we report the results of a case study analysis of bot activity in a recent, high-profile political discussion network. Specifically, we examine the prevalence and impact of bots in a Twitter network discussing the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Using this discussion network, we conduct a “before-and-after” analysis to examine the prevalence of social bots in the discussion network as well as their influence on key network features such as (1) network structure, (2) content/messaging, (3) sentiment, and (4) influentialness. Our findings suggest that bots can affect political discussion networks in several significant ways. We found that bot-like accounts created the appearance of a virtual community around far-right political messaging, attenuated the influence of traditional actors (i.e., media personalities, subject matter experts), and influenced network sentiment by amplifying pro-Trump messaging. The results of this analysis add to a growing body of literature on the use and influence of social bots while at the same time uniquely examining their influence in a nonelectoral, political setting.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)264-287
Number of pages24
JournalSocial Science Computer Review
Volume40
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Loni Hagen was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2017S1A3A2066084).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.

Keywords

  • Twitter
  • artificial intelligence
  • bots
  • media politics
  • political communication
  • social media

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (all)
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Library and Information Sciences
  • Law

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