Social bots become priority on Merkel's campaign agenda

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the CDU party conference in Hameln, Germany, on Nov 26,  2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the CDU party conference in Hameln, Germany, on Nov 26, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

BERLIN • Chancellor Angela Merkel's biggest contender in next year's German election campaign may not be a rival party leader but so-called "social bots" - software programmed to sway opinion on social media sites.

In her first speech to Parliament since announcing plans last Sunday to seek a fourth term as chancellor, Dr Merkel called for a debate on how fake news, bots and trolls can manipulate public opinion. "In order to reach people, to inspire people, we need to deal with this phenomenon and - where necessary - regulate it," she told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The role that social networks Facebook and Twitter play in spreading false and malicious information has shot up Dr Merkel's agenda after the shock election of US Republican candidate Donald Trump as president.

Social bots are software programmes that mimic human behaviour on social media sites, such as by publishing messages or liking posts. They can be used to spread erroneous information and muddy the debate. Some critics say the proliferation of fake news helped sway the United States election in Mr Trump's favour.

In a sign of how seriously Dr Merkel is taking the matter, she invited political data science professor Simon Hegelich of the Technical University of Munich to brief the executive committee of her Christian Democrats last Monday.

TACKLE THE PROBLEM

In order to reach people, to inspire people, we need to deal with this phenomenon and - where necessary - regulate it.

GERMAN CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, who called for a debate on how fake news, bots and trolls can manipulate public opinion

While all of Germany's political parties have said they will not deploy bots in the campaign, the fact that they are mostly anonymous makes it hard to work out who is behind them.

Prof Hegelich does not rule out third parties using them to try to discredit parties or politicians.

Two studies in the US have claimed that Russian propaganda efforts helped propagate "fake news" during the recent election.

The researchers estimated that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.

Some players in this online echo chamber were knowingly part of the propaganda campaign, the researchers concluded, while others were "useful idiots" - a term born of the Cold War to describe people or institutions that unknowingly assisted Soviet Union propaganda efforts.

Some of these stories originated with RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that mimic the style and tone of independent news organisations yet sometimes include false and misleading stories in their reports, the researchers say.

On other occasions, RT, Sputnik and other Russian sites used social media accounts to amplify misleading stories already circulating online, causing news algorithms to identify them as "trending" topics that sometimes prompted coverage from mainstream American news organisations.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Social bots become priority on Merkel's campaign agenda'. Print Edition | Subscribe