Social bots as a tool to develop civic engagement




social bots, botnets, bot functions, civic activism, Vkontakte social network


The article is devoted to social bots - automated programs which disseminate information at high speed and effectively, for example, by imitating the behavior of real social network users. Due to resonant use of social bots, primarily for political purposes (electoral practices, astroturfing, manipulation of public opinion, etc.), the study is focused on  malicious bots. The authors pursue a wider approach towards social bots and consider them as a neutral tool for information influence which can be used by different social agents in order to disseminate both manipulative misleading information and constructive promotion of the interests of various civil society groups producing a ‘megaphone effect’. Thus, the authors propose to use social bots as an instrument for realization of different forms of civic engagement. The study is focused on the following problems: (1) to analyze the sources describing the practices of use of social bots to expand civic engagement in different countries; and 2) to reveal and describe social bots in Vkontakte social networking website used by civic activists. The authors apply: (1) complex author’s method combining the method of frequency analysis of the published messages, bot account profiling including static-based and behavior-based analysis of user profile, visualization of ‘content-user’ correlation graphs, analysis of structural organization of bot network and content analysis of the publications; (2) additional tool to boost publication activity. As a result, three botnets are identified (“Deceived shareholders of LenSpetsStroy Limited company”, “Updates for Kudrovo residents”, “Updates for Murino residents”). The content analysis point to different forms of civic engagement: representing the interests of civil society groups; call for joint online and offline actions; social control over the performance of state officials; ensuring transparency of information provided by government bodies and businesses.

Acknowledgement. The study is part of the RFBR (Russian Foundation for Basic Research) project no. 18-011-00988 “Structure of Social networks online bot space: network analysis”. The equipment of the St Petersburg State University Research Park (Center for Sociological and Internet Research) was used to carry out the study.

Author Biographies

Valeria V. Vasilkova, St. Petersburg State University

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

Natalia I. Legostaeva, St. Petersburg State University

  • St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia
    • Cand. Sci. (Soc.), Research Fellow, Laboratory for research of social-economic and political processes of modern society

Vladimir B. Radushevsky, St. Petersburg State University

  • St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia
    • Programmer, Center for Sociological and Internet Research