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Robots and democracy Automated tweets observed in licence fee vote campaign

sportpanorama, behind the scenes at Swiss public tv

Behind the scenes at Swiss public television SRF - the vote was on whether to abolish the licence fee

(Keystone)

Up to 1,000 tweets a day were sent by human-assisted bots during the “No Billag” initiative campaign which aimed to abolish the public broadcasting licence fee in Switzerland, academics say.

On March 4, almost 72% of voters rejected a proposal to scrap the mandatory licence fee for services of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), which includes swissinfo.ch. The No Billag initiative was launched by the youth chapters of the two major parties on the right of the political spectrum.

Discussions over the issue triggered emotional campaigns and broad coverage by both traditional and social media in the months leading up to the ballot.

+ Learn more about the vote here

According to the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerlandexternal link (FHNW), 50 users generated half of the messages around the No Billag campaign (both for and against).

In all, between 200 and 1,000 tweets were published a day by users that had some technical support (so-called cyborgs), said Stefan Gürtler, professor at the FHNW’s Institute for Competitiveness and Communicationexternal link. Replies or forwarding occurred within a tenth of a second for some of them.

“No person can type that quickly,” he told the Nordwestschweizexternal link newspaper on Friday.

The audience for No Billag communications on Twitter was about the same as that of a national paper, he said. The institute studied almost 200,000 tweets from 26,000 user accounts during the eight weeks in the run-up to the vote. Researchers discovered manipulations in 1% of the accounts.

Gürtler said robots would likely have important repercussions on political discussions. But he added that most Swiss still consulted several sources of information so it would not be so easy to manipulate them.

SDA-ATS/ilj

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