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Are bots a danger for political election campaigns? Study on Japanese elections in 2014

Posted on 21st February 2018 at 15:38pm

Autonomous computer programmes – known as bots – are used to trawl the Internet, for example to help search engines. However, there are also programs known as social bots, which interfere in social media, automatically generating replies or sharing content. These are currently suspected of being used to spread political propaganda.

Scientists at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) in Germany have investigated the extent to which autonomous programs such as these were used on Twitter during the general elections in Japan in 2014.

Prof Dr Fabian Schäfer, Chair of Japanese Studies at FAU, was motivated to study the use of social bots after the general election in Japan in 2014, which was won by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Shinzo Abe.

Publicly, and in the mass media, the election campaign focused predominantly on economic issues, but it was a different story on social media. “Our analysis showed that Abe's hidden nationalistic agenda had a very important role to play in these channels,” Schäfer explains. “The importance of the hidden agenda in social media is not, however, down to either the prime minister or the LDP itself.” Rather, it appears that social bots were widely used by right-wing Internet users, ranging from far right to more conservative right-wing circles.

Prof Schäfer's initial hypothesis was that right-wing elements used social bots to lend indirect online support to Abe's nationalistic agenda, which had slipped into the background during the political campaign.

Together with Prof Dr Stefan Evert, professor for Corpus Linguistics at FAU, Schäfer analysed over 540,000 tweets posted shortly before and just after the elections in mid December. After noticing a high frequency of tweets that were the same or very similar, they investigated whether these originated from bots or even botnets. Unlike previous studies, the researchers did not focus on identifying bots based on their typical activity pattern, for example how often they sent tweets. Instead, they took a corpus linguistics approach, which allowed large volumes of text to be analysed. It quickly became clear that nearly 80 per cent of the investigated tweets were duplicates, including retweets, or close duplicates, which could be traced back to a total of 3,722 original Tweets.

The scientists at FAU recognised five patterns behind the spread of the tweets. They attributed three of the patterns to a pro-LDP campaign, and one to another group of right-wing Internet activists. The fifth pattern was attributed to users who acted similarly to bots. “Tweets in the first and second groups use similar language, reflecting the jargon often used in right-wing Internet circles, and tend to include racist or hostile remarks,” Schäfer explains.

This, and the names used for the numerous fake accounts, led Evert and Schäfer to the conclusion that the tweets originated from two right-wing Internet activist groups, including Netto uyoku, which frequently posts nationalistic and xenophobic articles on the Internet. This group was making massive use of these automated programmes to cover other hashtags. Bots can also spring onto popular hashtags and Tweets to instrumentalise them for the same purpose, without the Tweets sharing the same content.

This was exploited by right-wing Internet activists in the election in 2014, in particular to boost the spread of extremely nationalistic content. The accusation of being 'anti-Japanese' – a term used both by Netto uyo and in a slightly less extreme form by Abe – acted as a kind of language bridge between the extreme and the more moderate groups. According to Schäfer: “This bridge connected the nationalistic discourse of the right-wing Internet activists with Abe's right-wing conservative agenda. As a result, Abe's position was not only supported by the conservative organisations of a group of users with close links to the LDP, but also by the large, although not well organised, group of right-wing Internet activists.” As Japanese expert Schäfter explains, even though this group often took an anti-Abe position, they were spreading a very similar nationalistic agenda online.

  • Original publication: Japan's 2014 General Election: Political Bots, Right-wing Internet Activism, and Prime Minister Shinz? Abe's Hidden Nationalist Agenda. Big Data. DOI: 10.1089/big.2017.0049

CRJ 13:2 examines some of the wider issues related to propaganda, social media and manipulation (avaiable to subscribers only):

Normalising the unthinkable, in which Casey Brunelle investigates how the late 19th century term 'fake news' is being exploited by both sides of the political spectrum as a tool of increasingly partisan, zero-sum game politics 

Fake News and the art of war. David Stewart says that with physical objects, the ability to detect fakes is supported by trademarks or testing marks. When it comes to propaganda, there is no such source of truth

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