BOTS: What Are They?

Given the recent news about the Russia investigation, I have been wondering a lot about “bots”. What are they? What do they have to do with our elections? How are they regulated?

After talking to some young folks, I believe I can bring you some answers!

‘Bot’ is, as you may have guessed, short for ‘robot’. However, this is not the kind of robot that exists out in the world and does your laundry or vacuums your floor. Bots only exist as software. They are programs that repeatedly perform simple tasks, such as sending “out-of-office” emails or gathering data on the internet.

Like any tool, bots can be used to help or harm. Many bots are harmless, working behind the scenes to make our lives a little easier. But some are less benign. Some of you may have received phishing emails from a friend’s email address asking for money or private information. Most often, those emails are sent by bots programmed to exploit vulnerabilities in email security and pretend to be a real person.

Slightly over half of all web activity is performed by bots. Though not all bots are malicious, “bad” bots (those that pretend to be people, extract sensitive data, send spam, or aid criminal hackers) account for about 28% of all web activity. According to Imperva, a cybersecurity company, about a quarter of all web activity is performed by bots impersonating human beings.

The bots used by the Russians during their recent assault on the American election are similar. Instead of infiltrating peoples’ email to steal your information, Russian bots used invented or stolen social media accounts to amplify pro-Trump fake news and other divisive content.

Most recently, Russian bots attempted to sow discord by spreading misinformation about the Parkland shooting. Before that, they were instrumental in promoting the online campaign that led to the release of the Nunes memo.

(If you’re still interested in bots after reading my thoughts, this New York Times article detailing the recent actions of the “Russian bot army” is a good place to start.)

Unfortunately, it seems that bots are barely and poorly regulated. While it is possible for websites to employ programs that restrict the activity of bots, the internet is the site of an arms race between the developers of benign and malign software.

When those developers are nation-states or global corporations, the stakes are very high indeed.

There is no way of knowing whether the activity of Russian bots on American social media had any discernible effect on the 2016 election, but that attack was just the beginning.

While the Internet has often been compared to the Wild West, the era of low-stakes individual activity is over.

Governments and corporations have moved into cyberspace, and they have brought armies of smart well trained troops.

We should expect to see far more bot activity in the future as the struggle for power moves into the world of information, where the weapons are not guns or missiles but hashtags and headlines.



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