Amidst widespread reports of digital influence operations during major elections, policymakers, scholars, and journalists have become increasingly interested in the political impact of social media ‘bots.’ Most recently, platform companies like Facebook and Twitter have been summoned to testify about bots as part of investigations into digitally-enabled foreign manipulation during the 2016 US Presidential election. Facing mounting pressure from both the public and from legislators, these companies have been instructed to crack down on apparently malicious bot accounts. But as this article demonstrates, since the earliest writings on bots in the 1990s, there has been substantial confusion as to exactly what a ‘bot’ is and what exactly a bot does. We argue that multiple forms of ambiguity are responsible for much of the complexity underlying contemporary bot-related policy, and that before successful policy interventions can be formulated, a more comprehensive understanding of bots — especially how they are defined and measured — will be needed. In this article, we provide a history and typology of different types of bots, provide clear guidelines to better categorize political automation and unpack the impact that it can have on contemporary technology policy, and outline the main challenges and ambiguities that will face both researchers and legislators concerned with bots in the future.
The first version of this paper was presented at ICA 2018 in Prague.