As we contemplate the fallout of the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, it is interesting to consider the rising influence of social media in modern politics.
For exmaple, Nanette Byrnes discusses the role of "bots" on the shaping of the campaign and of public opinion. A bot is a software agent that performs some automated task, such as generating tweets. In fact, it seems that bots were particularly busy during the U.S. 2016 presidential election:
A study published the day before the election found an estimated 400,000 bots operating on Twitter that were tweeting—and being retweeted—at a remarkable pace, generating nearly 20 percent of all election-related messages.
One of the main jobs of such bots is to retweet messages conveying the party line. Bulk retweeting spreads the message further afield and makes it appear to enjoy more popular support than may, in fact, be the case.
As Scott commented recently, one effect of this bot traffic is the spreading of bogus news items. Well, 400,000 bots can't be wrong!
The study also found that about 75% of bots detected were supporters of the Republican Party. This suggests that some Trump supporters made large purchases of bots, which are likely available in bulk from botnet managers, or that Donald Trump is just especially appealing to automated scripts.
It's not news that social media is important in electoral politics: Barrack Obama relied on it during his campaigns. Yet, it has arguably contributed to the emergence of so-called "post-truth politics", in which candidates feel free to rely on whatever BS serves their purpose, regardless of its veracity. Twitter, in particular, seems like a favorable venue for this kind of messaging.
So, what is the lesson regarding social media in politics? Does it promote a political culture based on easily manipulated messaging? Or, is social media just a neutral tool that happened to develop at a tumultuous time in American political history?