Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that non-democracies employ new digital technologies known as social media bots to facilitate their domestic and foreign policy goals. However, no previous attempt has been made to systematically analyze the strategies behind the political use of bots. This paper seeks to fill this gap by developing and empirically testing a set of hypotheses about the strategic use of Twitter bots in Russia. We test two macro-hypotheses about the activation of bots as either a response to offline protests in order to demobilize citizens, or as a reaction to increased online opposition activity in an effort to maintain agenda control. We test a number of empirical predictions derived from these hypotheses and show that although both sets of hypotheses are supported, the observed effects are more pronounced for the online agenda control hypothesis. We argue that these results have implications for broader theories of digital propaganda and information control in modern electoral autocracies.
Sergey Sanovich is a postdoctoral research associate at the CITP. Previously, he was a cyber fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University, where he contributed to the “Securing American Elections” report, particularly focusing on the protection from disinformation. Sergey received his Ph.D. in political science from NYU and continues his collaboration with the Social Media and Political Participation Lab (SMaPP). His research is focused on disinformation and social media platforms governance; online censorship and propaganda by authoritarian regimes; and elections and partisanship in electoral autocracies
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