The US advisory commission on public diplomacy recently published a report titled “Can Public Diplomacy Survive the Internet: Bots, Echo-Chambers and Disinformation”. As the title implies, this report takes the view that the threats of digitalization may soon outweigh its benefits. Actors employing digital technologies can now stifle internal opposition, fracture and manipulate the media ecologies of other states and limit one’s access to diverse views and analyses. While the report deals with a range of issues, this blog post will focus on the ossue Bots and their impact on a diplomat’s ability to practice foreign policy analysis.
What are Bots?
According to Samuel Woolley, a contributor to the Commission’s report, Bots are computer programs that automate human tasks online ranging from generating ads for websites to matching two users of a dating application. Recently, governments and militaries have begun using bots to manipulate political communication. Internally Bots can be used to silence activists and opposition groups. Externally Bots can be used to manipulate public opinion and public discussions in foreign countries.
Woolley argues that Bots are increasingly used by states during times of crises such as contentious elections, military stalemates and mass protests. The majority of such Bots are deployed on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. Given that diplomats now increasingly rely on social media as an analysis tool, one has to wonder how Bots influence a diplomat’s ability to monitor events occurring in foreign countries and offer insight to policy makers. For instance, if Bots are used to stifle oppositions, diplomats may fail to recognize the true size and power of opposition groups. Conversely, if Bots are used to massively propagate pro-government views, diplomats may fail to recognize contentious political issues thinking that the a government enjoys popular support.
Evaluating Bots’ impact on foreign policy analysis may be achieved by catagorzing Bots into three groups identified by Woolley: Follower Bots, Roadblock Bots and Propaganda Bots.
Follower Bots are mainly used to artificially boost a politician’s number of followers on social media. In addition, these Bots share the politician’s online content thus increasing his onnline reach. Some might think that artificially boosting one’s popularity on Twitter is a minor issue. Yet in an age when political figures are judged by their ability to attract mass audiences online, the size of one’s social media following is a manifestation of political power.
Follower Bots may influence foreign policy analysis in three ways. First, diplomats may over-estimate the importance of political figures. Such a miscalculation may be detrimental during elections or civil unrest. For instance, if one of the candidates during an election boasts millions of online followers, a diplomat may mistakenly assume that he may be a serious contender to win the elections when in-fact his actual political support is rather limited. Moreover, a diplomat may advise his government to engage with the politician in question so as to lay the groundwork for a fruitful relationship should he win. Yet this would be a waste of time and efforts. Conversely, diplomats may underestimate certain political figures given their small online following when in-fact these politicians enjoy a broad-based support but have simply failed to purchase Follower Bots.
Follower Bots may also cause diplomats to miscalculate the staying power of leaders. Political crises often threaten a leader’s term in office. Diplomats using social media may over-estimate a leader’s staying power not just because of his online popularity, but because of the devotion of his followers who are always eager to share his social media content online. Follower Bots thus create the illusion that a leader has a passionate and dedicated follower base which could help him weather political storms. However, in reality, the leader may have very little support.
Miscalculating a leader’s staying power could be quite detrimental to a country’s foreign policy as the ousting of leaders may bring about political and financial instability, civil unrest or even the emergence of new governments with new interests. The examples discussed thus far suggest that diplomats must become aware of the tension between reality and the depiction of reality online.
According to Woolley, Roadblock Bots are used to demobilize and disrupt opposition groups or opposition activists. For instance, Roadblock Bots publish an awesome amount of tweets while using the opposition’s hashtag. This prevents the opposition from communicating online and organizing collaborative action.
Roadblock Bots may have four implications for foreign policy analysis. The first is somewhat counter intuitive- diplomats now need to analyze a country’s Roadblock capabilities. A government’s ability to use Bots to disrupt and demobilize opposition groups increases its durability and weakens the opposition’s threat. Imagine that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had at his disposal a troll army and a mass array of Bots through which he could have flooded the hashtag Tahrir. This could have increased his staying power and prevented the opposition from rallying and coordinating their actions. In other words, foreign policy analysis must now include an assessment of a government’s offensive digital capabilities.
Second, Roadblock Bots may cause diplomats to seriously under-estimate the size and power of opposition groups as these groups are unable to project their power online. This prevents diplomats from realizing that a tipping point has been reached and that mass protests are about to destabilize a country. Such lack of foresight can prevent nations from offering aid to opposition groups, calling for talks between governments and opposition groups so as to avoid violence and preventing crisis escalation.
Finally, and most importantly, the deployment of Roadblock Bots itself might suggest that a government has come to regard certain groups as a potential threat. Similarly, the deployment of Roadblock Bots could suggest that government perceives a credible threat to its stability. Thus, foreign policy analysis may require that diplomats track the deployment of Roadblock Bots by governments. This example suggests that the use of Bots is in itself an important diplomatic signal that should be integrated in foreign policy analysis.
According to Woolley, Propaganda Bots mimic humans while disseminating positive information about embattled governments or politicians and negative information about opposition groups. Russia allegedly used Propaganda Bots to boost pro-regime discourse and limit anti regime discourse both within Russia and in neighboring countries. Moreover, it is estimated that Azerbaijan and Iran used Propaganda Bots internally to limit anti regime discourse.
The employment of Propaganda Bots could have four implications for foreign policy analysis. First, social media should be regarded as a competitive framing environment in which governments compete over online audiences and audiences interpretation of events. For instance, during the Crimea Crisis the US, Russia and Ukraine all narrated events taking place in Eastern Ukraine and all attempted to sway public opinion in their favor. By using Propaganda Bots, a nation may be able to dramatically increase the reach of its frames and the intensity of it framing as opposed to another actor. This, in turn, leads to a form of framing dominance. Imagine that Russia had employed Propaganda Bots when discussing Ukraine and that the US did not. This could have given Russia a substantial advantage in framing and narrating events in Ukraine and winning over online audiences. Thus, the Propaganda abilities of nations should be integrated into the analysis of military conflicts.
Second, the employment of Propaganda Bots in favor of certain actors is also important for foreign policy analysis. Woolley writes that during the recent elections, the South Korean military used its Propaganda Bots to raise support for Park Geun-hye. This serves as an important signal for diplomats attesting to a politician’s ability to win an election and the level of support he or she enjoys from local powerful actors. Imagine that the Egyptian Military had thrown its Propaganda Bots behind a candidate in the 2012 Egyptian elections. This would have signaled that this candidate now enjoyed the support of the Egyptian king makers. Thus, an actor’s willingness to deploy Bots in favor of another should be incorporated into the practice of foreign policy analysis.
Propaganda Bots may also cause diplomats to misevaluate local sentiment towards external actors. For example, local diplomats in Kiev may have deduced that the local population is in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea given the prevalence of pro-Russian discourse on social media. This would have influenced diplomat’s appraisal of the Crimean crisis and their governments’ measures to end the crisis.
Conversely, Bots can fool diplomats into believing that a tipping point has arrived as Bots can boost pro-opposition rhetoric and stifle pro-government rhetoric. Yet this might simply be the result of sophisticated manipulation by an external actor. Imagine that country A wishes to destabilize country B by artificially propping up the profile of the local opposition. As a result, diplomats may advise governments to reach out to the opposition in country B which, in turn, strengthens that opposition and indeed leads to the ousting of the leader. This example suggest that straetgoc use of Bots can warp diplomats apprisal of reality.
In this post I attempted to explore the manner in which Bots could impact a core function of diplomacy- information gathering and analysis. I attempted to argue that Bots can influence foreign policy analysis in three main ways. First, Bots create a false reality which leads to faulty analysis. Second, Bots can increase the narrating abilities of governments and thus should become part of crisis analysis. Lastly, the deployment of Bots by a government or military is in itself a diplomatic signal, such as when an Army uses its Bots to support a candidate or when a government deploys Bots to stifle a specific opposition group.
Most importantly, this post argues that diplomats must come to regard social media as a strategic space in which reality and depictions of reality intersect. This means that diplomats must acquire new skills for critical evaluation of online content and must master new tools for identifying Bots and propaganda.