Ed note: I believe many of us have heard anecdotes about this but here’s a rigorous study to back up the belief that yes, bots can change policy. With better and better algorithms able to write short paragraphs in ‘ok’ English (not great IMO) and vary these paragraphs with each submission but still contain the key ideas means we now have to consider the source of the material – all the way back to the individual user. Some would contend that this would allow little or no privacy to those that need to report criminal or ethically-challenged behavior but what options do we have?
Some years ago, I was attending a DoD-sponsored conference near Silicon Valley at which a VC investor suggested one avenue is to re-construct the entire internet infrastructure so that every piece of code and byte of data has an owner (sort of a precursor to the blockchain idea) associated with a device and all devices are keyed to a specific individual or individuals.
Of course, there are other less draconian ways to handle this, e.g. requiring users to be verified prior to submitting comments to a government owned system seems perfectly reasonable. Still concerned about privacy? Well, there is always pen and paper or you can take the most effective step and meet with your representative.
Oh, and think you can detect the bots from humans? Take the test here and see for yourself, it’s not as easy as you might imagine.
How a Harvard undergrad used bots to influence Federal legislation
Max Weiss was doing advocacy work for state expansion and defense of Medicaid last summer, when he reportedly realized how easy it would be to use computer programs (or “bots”) to manipulate the results of online surveys on Federal legislation. While studying the ways in which various advocacy groups can influence pending legislation, he learned how valuable such groups find the federal government’s comment period, when members of the public are invited to weigh in on new or pending legislation via online forms. He used bots to generate auto-mated responses in order to flood the sites with fake comments for or against any proposal. “Thanks to Max’s work, several groups within the federal government are now actively making changes to combat these … vulnerabilities,” said Latanya Sweeney, Professor of Government and Technology in Residence at Harvard.