Carolina Alves de Lima Salge, a doctoral student in Management Information Systems (MIS), studies the use of “bots” in social movements

Carolina Alves de Lima Salge, a doctoral student in Management Information Systems (MIS), studies the use of “bots” in social movements.

“‘Bots’ are automated accounts in online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook,” explains Salge, “that can be used in a variety of ways, as for example, to increase awareness of a movement and further its reach.”

“In my dissertation, I am particularly interested in how botivists (activist bots) are deployed to support a social cause, whether they actually create echo chambers or not, and the ethics surrounding their use.”

A native of Brazil, Salge stumbled across her eventual dissertation topic while following- via social media- the 2013 political corruption protests happening in her native country.

The protests were triggered by the reversal of the Supreme Federal Court’s decision on the Mensalão trial, in which 25 corrupt congressmen were sent to prison for crimes ranging from embezzlement and corruption to conspiracy and misuse of public funds.

“This result frustrated and angered many Brazilians who were indignant with the justices for giving corrupted politicians a second chance. Motivated by rage, thousands started a corruption protest on Twitter.”

For her dissertation, Salge collected every tweet that included the “#changebrazil,” #changebrasil,” and “#mudabrasil” (#changebrasil in Portuguese) hashtags (words or phrases that are used to identify messages on a specific topic).

“My initial research question was straightforward,” she says. “I just asked, ‘Who are the key users behind the Mensalão protest on Twitter?’”

“After running the analyses, I discovered there were four main actors. I kept digging and to my surprise, I discovered that two of them were bots created in support of the cause.”

They had been programmed to retweet every tweet containing the hashtags #changebrazil and #vemprarua (come to the streets).

“I instantaneously thought, how can bots be key actors in a protest on Twitter? That is crazy! Since then I have been dreaming about bots, and quite frankly it is amazing. I absolutely love what I do.”

While cutting edge in 2013, Salge has seen a marked increase of the use of bots in the four years since.

“Now, you can easily read about how bots were used during presidential debates in the past U.S. election, how bots impacted the Brexit voting, and even how they were used by organizations to make profits.”

Currently, Salge is analyzing a large dataset she has collected on the role of botivists in Brazil’s 2013 political social movement.

She is focusing on uncovering the strategies that they used and how these impacted the movement’s network on Twitter.

Using the results of her analysis, Salge anticipates building theory to explain the many ways (or strategies) in which bots can be enacted to support social change.

“I think that my work will be useful to not only activists (on how to design bots that actually have some sort of impact on the network) but also to institutions that are targets of a movement (for example, governments and organizations). They may consider using bots to counter-attack a boycott or even prevent one from gaining traction.”

Drawing on information systems ethics, Salge is also interested in bot ethics.

“I hope the Bot Ethics procedure that Dr. Berente and I developed serves as a starting point and guide for ethics-related discussions among various participants in a social media community, as they evaluate the actions of bots,” she explains.

“We also reflect on the work of Aristotle to provide some readily accessible guidance rooted in sound ethical thinking on culpability and in particular, on the question of ‘who should be culpable (in the case of unethical action).’”

After graduation, Salge plans for an academic career at a research university.