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WVU researcher creates Twitter bot platform for activists

An image of Saiph Savage next to the flying WV logo

Saiph Savage.

Daily, news headlines speak of activists fighting for causes across the globe. Thanks to a West Virginia University researcher, their fight just got easier.


Saiph Savage, assistant professor of  computer science and electrical engineering, has created Botivist - a platform that uses Twitter bots, a program used to produce automated posts to the site, to help activists find potential volunteers and request contributions.

"When I looked at the discussions taking place on Twitter, I realized that most people were just there to complain or mourn," said Savage. "I asked myself if we could create technology that could mobilize these people to go from complaining to thinking about solutions."

The answer is yes.

Savage teamed up with Microsoft researcher Andres Monroy-Hernandez and Tobias Hollerer, professor of computer science at University of California Santa Barbara, to create a group of Twitter bots that targeted people who tweeted about government corruption in Latin America.

In total, 45 percent of bot communications received replies. Bots that gave direct discussion prompts such as, "corruption isn't fought with street rallies! It's fought by being tough on crime, having honesty and transparency," had the highest response rates, more than 80 percent, from volunteers invested in the cause. Other strategies, like using human personas for the nonhuman bots, were not as successful.

"When Botivist used techniques designed to be persuasive and effective in direct human interaction, replies were low," said Savage. "By being less human, and more robotic, the bots received double the responses, showing us that people were happy to interact with bots as long as they didn't pretend to be human."

Little was known on the use of online bots in civic engagement before the study, but the results suggest the mechanism is here to stay.

"As we saw in the study, the majority of people called to action by Botivist made relevant contributions to the discussion and began collaborating with other activists that were mutually contacted by a bot," said Savage. "Botivist is a tool that brings all of the little things together to create meaningful change in society."

Botivist has been featured in reports by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's  Review and Vice.

The team is currently collaborating with the Wikimedia Foundation to learn how bots can be used to recruit volunteers to execute tasks for Wikipedia and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA hopes to use Botivist to create a mentoring system among those wishing to make animal-friendly lifestyle changes.



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