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“No need to panic”

How big is the influence of social bots on elections? Interview with Simon Hegelich, Professor of Political Data Science.

Social bots: is it a person who is writing here or a machine?
Social bots: is it a person who is writing here or a machine? © dpa

Germany. He reads masses of tweets and posts for research purposes every day. Simon Hegelich is Professor of Political Data Science at the Technical University of Munich. He has been observing a "structural transformation of public opinion" – today, political opinion-forming works in a totally different way than it did five years ago. In this interview he explains the role played in this context by social bots – computer programs that only pretend to be human users of social networks.

Professor Simon Hegelich
Professor Simon Hegelich © TUM/ediundsepp

Professor Hegelich, one of your studies on social bots is entitled 'Invasion of the Opinion Robots' – that sounds threatening.

There's no need to panic. Social bots do indeed get involved in all political debates in the social networks. But there are few indications that they have a particularly strong influence on voters. When it comes to their political opinions, people are not so easy to manipulate.

The Chaos Computer Club even says that bots are totally overrated.

You have to look at this topic in a balanced way. Certainly, a lot of things are exaggerated. For example, the idea that Brexit was caused by bots is nonsense. On the other hand, you can't say bots are not a problem.

Bots can manipulate short-term opinion trends.
Data researcher Simon Hegelich

Where exactly does the problem lie?

First, they can manipulate short-term opinion trends. During the television duels in the run-up to the US elections, for example, an extremely large number of bots were in use. However, they only have an effect if journalists react to such trends. That is what happened in this case: the assessments of whether Trump or Clinton had won were often based on analyses of social networks. Secondly, in the long term bots can unsettle the population. If used in a certain way, they can contribute to the loss of confidence in the political institutions.

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How can you prove a correlation between the use of bots and the development of a debate?

That's difficult. We collect a very large number of messages and check, for example, whether these posts are being forwarded by real users. We have built up a unique database for this purpose at the Technical University of Munich. It contains 160 million tweets related to Germany's Bundestag elections alone.

You are also an official adviser to the Bundestag. Are policy-makers well equipped to handle bots and co?

I would say yes. There has been a quick learning effect, partly as a result of the elections in the USA. The parties have developed strategies on how to handle them. They have also pledged never to use bots themselves.

According to a new study by the consulting firm PWC, the majority of Germans are calling for tougher action against political propaganda in social networks. Do policy-makers have any way of regulating this area?

They must regulate it because a major change has been unleashed here. It's difficult, of course, because we're talking about a World Wide Web, so the people responsible can be based anywhere in the world. Furthermore, you it's a delicate balance to exert state control without restricting freedom of speech. But the answer must not be that "regulation doesn't work – so let's not even try."

The interview was conducted by Helen Sibum.