As far as bot expe­ri­ence and doing bots active­ly for protest pur­pos­es, I guess I kind of acci­den­tal­ly did this with a bot called ClearCongress, which is @clearcongress. Not the best name, I think, but it was my attempt to try to respond to or deal with frus­tra­tion I was feel­ing about polit­i­cal speech at the time. 

This was right around the time of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut­down when Senator Ted Cruz and oth­ers were push­ing the shut­down. The whole exchange was very frus­trat­ing to me and I wrote a let­ter to my local rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and he wrote me back and it was this boil­er­plate of all this bull­shit. So I was read­ing it and just men­tal­ly cross­ing off line after line of bull­shit, so I decid­ed to make a bot that does that for me. What it does is it goes into an API that lists mem­bers of Congress and their Twitter accounts, picks one at ran­dom, picks their most recent tweet, and it retweets it but replaces a cer­tain per­cent­age of all the char­ac­ters of that tweet with black or gray rec­tan­gles so that the remain­ing amount of let­ters that you get to actu­al­ly read is equiv­a­lent to the cur­rent lev­el of Congress’ approval rat­ing, which I get from The Huffington Post’s API.

It’s the kind of bot that the out­put of it isn’t all that inter­est­ing, like if you fol­low it you just see lots of rec­tan­gles and char­ac­ters, but I think the idea of it is kind of inter­est­ing. I was inter­est­ed in look­ing at the idea of bots as speech, or bots as being capa­ble of cre­at­ing free speech, and Mark Sample (I don’t think his name’s come up yet so I’ll go ahead and men­tion Mark Sample) had a real­ly nice analy­sis of what he calls a protest bot” ver­sus an activist bot.” He pub­lished this on Medium. It’s a way to talk about what kinds of things bots are capa­ble of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and I think protest and activism is one way to think about a cer­tain kind of speech in a con­text like Twitter. 

So, @clearcongress isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the best one but it’s mine. I also like the NSA PRISM bot which tweets out fake notices of the NSA notic­ing things, and when I look at all the dif­fer­ent kinds of bots that I think are protest or activist, there’s a cou­ple of themes that I tend to notice. So I wouldn’t cor­rect any of what Mark Sample talks about as far as protest bots, but just to add a cou­ple points of view, I think mak­ing some­thing vis­i­ble that’s not sup­posed to be vis­i­ble is one aspect of bots in this vein. That’s also true of the broad­er field of so-called hack­tivism.” And I think of @congressedits as doing a real good job of show­ing some­thing that isn’t meant to be shown in a way, and that’s part of its ener­gy or inter­est as a bot, and I think that’s a way to reverse that. So @clearcongress is the oth­er side of that, tak­ing some­thing that’s sup­posed to be vis­i­ble and then obscur­ing it in a way that is actu­al­ly cri­tiquing the con­text of the speech that’s sup­posed to be heard.

So I think that’s inter­est­ing and I think there’s a lot of inter­est­ing things at stake here when we look at polit­i­cal speech. Many of us are involved in acad­e­mia and there’s been a few widely-publicized cas­es of pro­fes­sors or oth­er peo­ple being lim­it­ed in their speech in social media, or being told that their speech in social media, their actions in social media dis­qual­i­fied them for jobs. This occurs to me as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for some fur­ther bot activism if we’re look­ing for ideas. I’ve been try­ing to think about ways to do this and I haven’t quite come up with any­thing yet. But it seems that there’s a lot at stake for some peo­ple try­ing to speak out in these contexts.

I don’t have much else to add about that, but I’m inter­est­ed what oth­er peo­ple think about ideas for speech as action and speech as refusal, if there’s oppor­tu­ni­ties to do that in a kind of pub­lic way. The nice thing about Twitter some­times is that it can feel real­ly small. And I think, to go off what Rob was say­ing, that when you choose your Twitter audi­ence care­ful­ly (as we often do or some­times it gets cho­sen for us that way) we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk to each oth­er or make refusal more focused or cre­ate locus­es around actions or state­ments of refusal in ways that aren’t always avail­able to us in oth­er media or even oth­er social media like Facebook. And so that’s why I think Twitter has a lot of inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for activism.

So that’s a bit of ram­bling, I guess. It’s what I’ve been think­ing about. I don’t have any new bots to show in that vein at the moment.


Discussion

Darius Kazemi: So that wraps up the formal part of activist bots. We don't have a whole lot of time to discuss but if we have some questions and comments from people who are here or on IRC as well, I'm happy to spend five minutes on that and then regrettably we have to move on to the next section.

Joel[?]: I will really quickly say in line with what Rob was talking about. I haven't seen what his protection tool is or how it operates. I'm sure it's amazing. If you'd like access to something that you can make to help people you know who might have predictable criteria for who they might not want to be talking to or hearing from, I have been working on Block Together, and I've built one robot that indexes people who use particularly noxious hashtags and whose accounts were created after those hashtags began being used. It's a very blunt solution but it's been very helpful to a number of people. So if you want to give someone a link to an app where they can get an authorization and then you do the work of making a bot that maintains a list of who they can not hear from, that option is available and you can help people that way.

Darius: Excellent. I had a comment based on Ed's talk a little bit. It seems like once @congressedits became a known thing, then that invited people to sort of play with @congressedits. Like it almost instantly became a disinformation platform in addition to an information platform. And that just highlights one of the problems that I always have when I try to think up activist bots, is that you often end up designing things that cut both ways. I just wanted to point that out, really. I think that's interesting that I see that pattern over and over and over again.

Brett O'Connor: I have one comment. In regards to Rob talking about the anxiety around following people on Twitter and the social precedent Twitter sets through its UI and stuff, one thing I've always loved about the Twitter _ebooks bots is they'll take your Twitter account and kind of turn it into a Markov chain bot. And I think there's an interesting effect with a lot of people where seeing your own Twitter account distorted and broken in that way adds a little sense of liberation from how you're supposed to act or behave on Twitter, because the bot is just doing things you're not going to do. So you kind of see this alternate reality version of yourself and whatnot. I think that's another way that bots kind of challenge the socialization of Twitter and what they want us to do.

Darius: Thank you. Any other comments? Anybody else built an activist bot or anything, or protest bot?

Zach Whalen: Just one more thought. I think the idea of, as Darius said, the risk of these becoming a kind of performance and sort of just a performance for its own sake, which is what most bots are really, which is why we like them. But my take on it, I'm looking at or I'm interested in how bots are a kind of speech and that is itself kind of a fallback position, if you think about it. When I originally designed @clearcongress it actually just added the members of Congress. It just added their accounts, and that got it banned for a while and then I got it back in there. So now it's just performative, it just pretends to interact or pretends to retweet, and that is itself a way in which the API and what Twitter lets you do with it has decided that I can't do that in this case. I think the policy of not being able to massively reply to people, I think that makes sense that that's there for all kind of reasons related to harassment. But I essentially had this bot in a way that I felt was justified in harassing certain people in a very limited kind of way and I was denied that by Twitter. So I think it's interesting to see what Rob was talking about, ways to work with and against that API. That's really where a lot of these things butt heads, I guess.


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