Bots for Autocrats: How Pro-Government Bots Fight Opposition in Russia

Stukal, Denis; Sanovich, Sergey; Bonneau, Richard; Tucker, Joshua A

Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that non-democracies employ new digital technologies known as social media bots to facilitate policy goals both domestically and abroad. However, few previous attempts have been made to systematically analyze the strategies behind the political use of bots. This paper seeks to fill this gap by developing two alternative frameworks – referred to as the offline demobilization and online agenda control frameworks – for theorizing about the role of bots in non-democratic regimes. We test various empirical implications of these two frameworks using a large collection of Twitter data generated by Russian pro-government bots in response to offline and online Russian domestic opposition activities. We show that although predictions generated from both frameworks receive empirical support, there is more evidence consistent with the online agenda control framework. These results have implications for the theories of state propaganda and disinformation employed by modern non-democratic regimes.