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Bots for Civic Engagement

From SmarterChild to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon to Horse_ebooks, humans have relationships of varying quality with bots. Mostly it’s commercial spam. But sometimes it’s less benign: for instance, the 2012 Mexican elections saw thousands of Twitter bots published by one candidate’s side denouncing the opposition with a flood of messages. There are countless examples of bots used for nefarious purposes, in America, Iran and elsewhere.

What would a future look like where instead we see a proliferation of bots for positive civic engagement? Could we automate the distribution of civic information and education? Manipulate information flows to improve our welfare? Engineer reverse-Distributed-Denial-of-Service attacks? Should we?

This panel takes a critical look at the discourse around, and architecture of, information overload to facilitate an important and timely debate around the engineering, usefulness, and ethics of bots for civic engagement.

Additional Supporting Materials


  1. What is the current state of bot society? How do we map bot networks, predict bot maneuvers, and discover bot conquests? Essentially, how do we model the bad behaviors of bots to rejuvenate them for good?
  2. What does a bot for civic engagement even look like? Can we start with nefarious bot behaviors as models and morph these into positive behaviors, or do should start from scratch and try to envision the role of bots in an ideal civic ecosystem? Might it be possible to create an entire botnet to help shape society and its governments?
  3. What would constitute an ethics of bot usage for civic and journalistic purposes? We already have bots writing data-driven news stories about softball games and the stock market; the University of Nebraska is even home to the first Drone Journalism Lab. If military bots can’t kill without human intervention, should journalism bots report without editor approval? And whose responsibility is it to ensure that a bot’s audience is literate when it comes to identifying and interacting with it?
  4. Considering the public image of a “bot” is about as negative as a “hacker,” how might a civic bot be used for activism? Could this public characterization of bots hurt an activist’s agenda before they’re even deployed? What’s an activist, wishing to deploy a bot, to do?
  5. What good is thinking about bots for civic engagement anyway? Is civic the objective or the starting point? How can governments, nonprofits, and other civic-minded people actually use them strategically and successfully? And if good people deploy these bots en masse, won’t bad people deploy more dangerous and destructive ones to stop them?



Erhardt Graeff, Graduate Researcher, MIT Center for Civic Media

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