The Ethics of Attention (Part 2): Bots for Civic Engagement

Cross-posted from the Department of Alchemy blog.

Last month, Ethan Zuckerman of the Center for Future Civic Media (MIT Media Lab) posted a great article on his blog called The Tweetbomb and the Ethics of Attention (constituting Part I to this story, so make sure you read it!), in which he calls into question the practice of flooding particular users with Twitter messages to support a particular cause. The emergence of tweetbombing as a practice on Twitter is very intriguing, particularly around the assumed norms of participation:

Ethan had written previously about “the fierce battle for attention” when covering journalistic integrity and Foxconn; the tweetbomb story, meanwhile, focuses on emergent practices around gaming attention in social media platforms (modern infrastructures for communication), away from the usual norms situated around attention in news-sharing ecosystems.

These practices relate to what Ethan calls “attention philanthropy”: if you can’t move content yourself, see if you can motivate an attention-privileged individual to do it for you.

The problem is that attention is an issue of scale: how do you get the attention of everyone?. Social capital becomes a literal currency; we exchange the value embedded in networks in an attention economy. There are a number of assumptions underlying traditional mass media technologies, like radio and television: broadcast, primetime, the mass audience; but with the internet (like with cable and satellite radio), attention is splintered, across a multitude of channels, streams, feeds.

The issue with social media platforms versus mainstream media outlets is that for the most part there are many individuals who can bring attention to content that aren’t protected by the media institution (for instance, Ethan discusses well-known BoingBoing blogger Xeni Jardin, who manages her own personal Twitter account). In the attention economy facilitated by social media, then, we potentially deal with vulnerable actors.

The Low Orbit Ion Cannon, changing human consent into a social “botnet” for distributed denial of service attacks. What if you could use a similar automated program for political gain?

But what if you don’t have powerful people or institutions to help you garner attention? Or what if you can’t convince others to help you?

Become the Gepetto of the attention economy, and make some bots.

Tim Hwang’s Pacific Social project has shown that Twitter bots can influence Twitter audiences to an astounding degree. The projects’ results show that bots successfully interact with other human users, but the bots also aid in connecting disparate groups of Twitter users together.

This leads me to ask: Can you create bots for civic engagement?

How could a bot work in favor of civic engagement? Well, civic engagement has traditionally been measured according to two factors: 1) voting, and 2) social movements. But it’s increasingly evident, especially in today’s social-media-laden world, that information circulation also helps inform citizens about critical issues and educate them about how to make change within the democracy. We see platforms like Reddit able to spread information to audiences of millions (helping to generate success for campaigns like SOPA). While many complain about “slacktivism,” it’s undeniable that mass attention can generate results.

Bots have a useful power to move information across social networks by connecting human individuals to others who care about similar topics. What if you could essentially use an automated process to optimizes online communities into stronger partisan networks by connecting those with similar affiliations who do not yet know each other? Or, perhaps, use bots to educate vast networks about particular issues? KONY 2012, for instance, utilized student social networks on Twitter as seed groups to help mobilize the spread of information about the campaign.

But there’s also potential for the manipulation of information, and while manipulating the masses is likely though complex, having an army of coordinated bots to do your bidding is much easier, especially when a peripheral effect of bot participation is the perception to human users of important information spreading.

This morning, Andrés Monroy Hernández of Microsoft Research linked me to a timely project by Iván Santiesteban called AdiosBots.

AdiosBots tracks automated Twitter bots set up by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico. According to Iván’s English project page, one of the contenders from this party for the upcoming elections on July 1st has been utilizing fake Twitter accounts manipulated by bots to spread information to “publish thousands of messages praising Enrique Peña Nieto and ridiculing his opponents. They also participate in popular hashtags and try to drown them out by publishing large amounts of spam.”

In other words, they are “used to affect interaction between actual users and to deceive.” And in total, Iván has found close to 5,000 of these bots.

In this instance, there is no need for attention philanthropy: the bots act as an automated social movement mimicking positive political affiliation while denouncing the opposition’s supporters. But it’s clear that vulnerability plays a huge role in attacks on political individuals and the spread of false information. There’s also the ethical question about what users do not know: is it a problem that individuals assume bots to be human and merely helpful rather than programmed to exploit and optimize human behavior?

Bots of civic engagement also call into question the ethics around social media norms. Should people assume interaction with automatons will occur? Or is this a question of media literacy, where users should be educated enough about the ecosystems they use to be able to point out misinformation, or even find discrepancies between “organic” information and automated information (even when it’s used with beneficial motives)? What if the bots are so convincing that they can’t?

Bots for civic engagement was an idea that almost led me to apply for an annual Knight Foundation grant. If you’re interested in building this idea into a tangible project, please email me.

Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Read more about his research at or find him on Twitter at

Internet Blackout: SOPA, Reddit, and Networked (Political) Publics

This post has been cross-posted from Henry Jenkins’ blog.

If you don’t have time to read this article in full, the easiest way to skim information about this topic is to visit

In the past year, we’ve dealt with various novel political moments around the world that have been enabled or augmented with networked technology, from Anonymous’ global “hacktivist” incidents to the numerous protests in the Middle East, topped off of course with the vibrant grassroots protests of the Occupy movement. Over the last few months, we’ve also seen another interesting case study taking place in American politics: rampant opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, dubbed as “the most important bill in Congress you may have never heard of” by Chris Hayes of

Watch Chris Hayes’ interview for a good introduction to the debate around SOPA.

SOPA, a bill currently making its way through the House of Representatives (along with its sibling PIPA, the Protect IP Act, currently in the Senate) has faced weeks of protest from Internet companies and users alike. Why? Well, on Google Plus, Sergey Brin — cofounder of Google — likened the potential effects of SOPA to the Internet censorship practiced in China, Iran, Libya, and Tunisia. Basically, to protect against international copyright infringement, SOPA allows the US to combat websites (such as file lockers or foreign link aggregators) that illegally distribute or even link to American-made media by blocking access to them. Theoretically, the bill has dangerous implications for websites that rely on user-generated content, from YouTube to 4chan. Many have already written about the worries that SOPA and PIPA cause, such as Alex Howard’s excellent, in-depth piece over at O’Reilly Radar. For more information on the bills, visit OpenCongress’s webpages, where you can see summaries of the legislation, which companies support and oppose them, and round-ups of by mainstream and blogged news: SOPA + PIPA. The bills are one more step in a long line of anti-piracy legislation, such as 2010’s Combatting online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).

Within the first few weeks since SOPA was introduced, introduced the hyperbolic to illustrate the fears ordinary Internet users should have in relation to the legislation. In essence, SOPA would radically undermine many of the fan practices that Henry and others have analyzed on this blog. Fight for the Future also released the following video (which was my first media exposure to SOPA):

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

However, for the most part, criticism — or even basic coverage — of SOPA remained an online phenomenon. While there have been a few online articles written on CNN and a couple other networks, the mainstream news coverage of the bills remain fairly nonexistent, reports MediaMatters, likely due to the fact that the television networks largely support the bill. The Colbert Report featured a pair of short segments on SOPA in early December.

The Internet, though, largely worked around that problem.

In his book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, UCLA anthropologist Chris Kelty describes free software programmer-activists as a recursive public. Drawing from Michael Warner’s concept of “publics and counterpublics” from Habermas’s “public sphere,” Kelty illustrates these programmers as a group that is addressed by copyright and code, and who work to make, maintain, and modify their technological networks and code as well as the discourse with which they engage as a public. This “circularity is essential to the phenomenon.”

Especially over the past two months, we’ve seen an exceptional effort on the part of online companies to engage users with the political process to oppose SOPA. For instance, on 16 November 2011, Tumblr blacked out every image, video, and word on each user’s dashboard, linking at the top of the page to, where users could call their local representative.

The effort set of thousands of shared posts and hundreds of hours of calls.

While other companies attempted similar experiments (like Scribd on 21 December), Internet leaders joined together to spread word and inform Congress (such as with this letter from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on 15 November, and later this letter by many others on 14 December) and even political opponents of SOPA reached out on social media, like when Senator Ron Wyden asked people to sign their names at so he could read the list at a filibuster. Other experts eventually spoke up too.

But perhaps the most intriguing political effort occurred within one specific online community:

Reddit, founded in 2005, is a social news and discussion website where users submit and vote on content. According to, Reddit is currently the 53rd most-visited site in the United States. Due to its increasing popularity, Reddit’s slogan is “the front page of the internet” — pertinent, because when a link hits the front page of Reddit, it can lend hundreds of thousands of page views. Though members at times highlight the site’s immaturity and incivility, its vibrant community — combined with the hypervisibility of the front page, has particularly thrived over the past couple of years, especially in terms of political participation and charity. Co-founded Alexis Ohanian gave a TEDtalk about Reddit’s dedication to strange things online and when that translates into a sort of political participation:

Humorously, every activist-related post on the official Reddit blog is tagged with “do it for splashy.

In terms of more prominent political activism, Reddit’s community — particularly it’s subreddit, /r/politics, and the emergent subreddit /r/SOPA — has unified around opposing SOPA, in line with the free-speech, utopian personality that pervades the site. For instance, a couple posts on /r/politics and r/technology that reached the front page [1, 2] helped bring rapid visibility to Senator Wyden’s filibuster initiative.

A more effective protest occurred in the form of a website boycott. GoDaddy, the domain register, was discovered to be a supporter of SOPA. After some discussion on Reddit, one r/politics thread reached the front page: GoDaddy supports SOPA, I’m transferring 51 domains & suggesting a move your domain day. Visibility of SOPA-related content was aided by a new subreddit, r/sopa, to which a global sidebar linked from the Reddit homepage. Less than 24 hours after the boycott started (even though, by numbers, it was deemed hardly successful), and with two more /r/politics threads that reached the front page [1, 2], GoDaddy reversed their stance and dropped support for SOPA.

SOPA debate continued to be fueled by various posts, including one by cofounder Alexis Ohanian: If SOPA existed, Steve & I never could’ve started reddit. Please help us win.. At the end of December, r/politics joined together to place pressure on SOPA-supporting Representative Paul Ryan; eventually, he reversed his position and denounced the bill.

Most notably, Alexis Ohanian recently announced on the Reddit blog that the entire site would voluntarily shut down on Wednesday 18 January 2012 for twelve hours, from 8am-8pm EST. Replacing the front page will be “a simple message about how the PIPA/SOPA legislation would shut down sites like reddit, link to resources to learn more, and suggest ways to take action.” This blacking out of Reddit coincides with a series of cybersecurity experts’ testimonies in Congress, at which Ohanian will be representing and speaking.

In reaction to SOPA (and PIPA, to which the opposition is now growing, since the SOPA vote has now been shelved), a vigorous public emerged across the web and united around discourse about the bills, particularly on But to return to Kelty: is this a recursive public? Do the political users of Reddit have enough power and agency to maintain and modify their public?

I believe this question gets at a deeper question of ontology: what does political participation mean in a 1) networked, and 2) editable age? For instance, some users are able to promote their skills for discourse — eg., My friend and I wrote an application to boycott SOPA. Scan product barcodes and see if they’re made by a SOPA supporter. Enjoy. — but in certain cases, participation in technological systems becomes participation in a recursive public because that participation helps modify the system. In the case of Reddit, participation can become political when content reaches extreme visibility. And this is particularly important when we reconsider that the mass media has barely covered SOPA as a topic: due to this conflict, participation on a network platform like Reddit becomes an inherently political action.

And out of these seemingly-innocuous actions emerge more political moves. In reaction to the black out, other websites have agreed to join the effort, such as Perhaps the decision with the most impact came on Monday, when Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia — which receives up to 25 million visitors per day at the English-language portal — would also shut down, but this time for a full 24 hours, after a lengthy discussion on Wales’ personal Wikipedia page. Wales responded to the announcement on Twitter by saying, “I hope Wikipedia will melt phone systems in Washington on Wednesday.”

In a recent New York Times article, Reddit’s political actions were noted. “‘It’s encouraging that we got this far against the odds, but it’s far from over,’ said Erik Martin, the general manager of, a social news site that has generated some of the loudest criticism of the bills. ‘We’re all still pretty scared that this might pass in one form or another. It’s not a battle between Hollywood and tech, its people who get the Internet and those who don’t.” Of course, Reddit isn’t the only platform that is part of this important recursive public, just as Twitter wasn’t the saving grace of the Arab Spring or the Iranian Revolution. The efforts of hundreds of activists around the country have contributed immensely to the anti-SOPA effort. But keep in mind that Reddit has reached a pinnacle of political participation in the last few months, and I have a feeling that — like YouTube in the 2008 presidential elections — Reddit may be the site to watch in 2012.

Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at USC Annenberg, where he studies digital culture and networked technology. Recently, his work has focused on creative participation in immense online networks, examining global participatory phenomenon like Hatsune Miku and Minecraft. You can reach him on Twitter @alexleavitt or via email at; to read more about his research, visit