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.

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.