The piece is about social bots – programs that operate fake user accounts on Facebook or Twitter – and how concepts from ecology can help make our relationships with bots safer and healthier. It focuses on current problems in bot security, and it develops a theory of hybrid ethics to explore how bots can augment and enhance life online.
Political actors are now deploying software programs called social bots that use social networking services such as Facebook or Twitter to communicate with users and manipulate their behavior, creating profound issues for Internet security. Current approaches in bot control continue to fail because social media platforms supply communication resources that allow bots to escape detection and enact influence. Bots become agents by harnessing profile settings, popularity measures, and automated conversation tools, along with vast amounts of user data that social media platforms make available. This article develops an ecological approach to thinking about bots that focuses on how social media environments propel bots into agency. This habitat-based model uses bots to expose ripe targets of intervention and innovation at the level of interface design. It also situates bots in the context of platform providers with a vested interest in interface design, revealing a range of new political problems. Most important, it invites a hybrid ethics, wherein humans and bots act together to solve problems in bot security and Internet ethics more broadly.