Protest Bots

Abstract (in English): 

With half a century’s worth of profound social and technological change, the 1960s protest movement is far removed from today’s world. Networks, databases, video games, social media, and the rise of algorithmic culture and the sharing economy have irrevocably altered our landscape. What, in this world, is the 21st century equivalent of that key feature of the sixties protest movement: the protest song? This paper argues that one possible answer is the protest bot, a computer program that algorithmically generates social and political critiques on social media.

Using Habermas’s imperfect account of the public sphere as my starting point, I suggest that five characteristics define protest bots—or bots of conviction, as I also call them. Bots of conviction are topical, data-based, cumulative, oppositional, and uncanny. After explaining these five characteristics, I explore several well-known and lesser-known bots on Twitter, showing how they are or are not protest bots. Throughout this paper I adopt a critical code studies approach, diving into the procedural DNA of several bots of conviction of my own creation.

This paper situates bots of conviction within a larger bot ecology, which includes spambots, chatbots, generative poetry bots, art bots, and absurdist avant-garde bots. Unlike these other forms of computer-generated social media, protest bots are a promising form of tactical media, a kind of media activism that destabilizes dominant narratives, perspectives, and events. This micropolitical activism, I argue, should complement the creative dimensions of digital art, poetry, and literature, serving as one of “the ends” of electronic literature.

(source: ELO 2015 conference catalog)

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Hannah Ackermans