Social Bots in Computational Propaganda: Surfing the Coronavirus Information Wave




infodemia, computational propaganda, social bots, conspiracy narrative, coronavirus


The article considers the modern phenomenon of infodemia as an extension of latent mechanisms of information impact. The authors interpret this process in the context of the concept of computational propaganda, which allows the authors not only to describe the use of new computer technologies for manipulation and disinformation in social networks (fake information, social bots, etc.), but also to reveal the hidden goals of propaganda agents in the modern online space. The article aims to analyze the use of social bots for propaganda onslaught amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

The authors performed analytical reviews of the sources describing new forms of misinformation and ways to spread it in social networks during the coronavirus pandemic (fake news, social bots) and presented the results of a pilot study aiming to reveal and describe botnets in Vkontakte social network that are related to coronavirus topic and can be interpreted in the context of computational propaganda. The study was implemented at the Center for Sociological and Internet Research (St Petersburg State University) from March 16th through May 26th 2020 using an author’s method to analyze the surges in publication activity combined with a complex method to detect botnets encompassing frequency analysis of the posts, bot accounts’ profiling, statistical analysis of texts, analysis of botnet’s structural organization, and analysis of the publications’ content. As a result, the authors detected the bots that used a wave of a popular coronavirus-related topic for propagandist purposes and promoted the following content on the social network ‘VKontakte’: (1) oppositionist political content criticizing the government policies and domestic health system; (2) conspiracy narratives related to the dangers of food and water poisoning and toxic medicines and the risks of “digital slavery” caused by the large-scale introduction of biometrics.

Acknowledgments. The study was funded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project No. 20-011-31318 “Communicative strategies of policy-related online communities on social media”).

We would like to thank our colleagues from the Center for Sociological and Internet Research of Saint Petersburg State University for guidance and support.

Author Biographies

Valeriya V. Vasilkova, Saint Petersburg State University

  • St Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia
    • Dr. Sci. (Philos.), Professor at the Department of Sociology of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Sociology

Natalia I. Legostaeva, Saint Petersburg State University

  • St Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia
    • Cand. Sci. (Soc.), Senior Researcher at the Research Laboratory for Socio-Economic and Political Processes of Modern Society