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October 27, 2017

Lesson plan: Bot or not? How fake social media accounts could influence voting

The invention of social media has provided us with a wide range of opportunities to become more informed on key issues and engage in the democratic process. However, it has also created space for individuals to try to influence public opinion around a particular political agenda through the creation of by thousands of phony social media accounts, or computer-generated ‘bots.’

About 30 percent of social media users have been deceived by a bot at one point or another. In this PBS NewsHour lesson, students will examine how the invention of the bot on social media websites like Twitter plays a role in influencing public opinion. Students will then invent their own bot to spread awareness about an issue they care about.

Grades:

9-12

Subjects:

Computer Science, Technology, Social Studies, U.S. Government, Civics

Estimated Time:

One 50-minute period

Essential Question:

How has the invention of social media affected the democratic process?

Overview:

In this lesson, students will learn how computer scientists analyze tweets to tell which accounts are phony, automated bots and which accounts have real people behind them. While it’s difficult to know what the overall impact of bots has been on public opinion, we do know that most Americans can’t distinguish between bots and real users.

Students will learn about some of the issues surrounding bots and invent their own bot that will be used to inform and improve the public’s understanding of a key issue in their community.

Objectives:

To understand the positive and negative consequences of the invention of the bot.

To invent a ‘helper bot’ that could be used to raise awareness of a problem in your community.

Materials:

Video: Cracking the stealth political influence of bots

Paper and writing utensils

Procedure:

Warm-up activities: 

  1. Brainstorm the following question as a class: What elements does a story have to have in order for it to go viral? 
    • Was one of your responses that is has to be written by a real person? Read through the New York Times article by Farhad Manjoo ‘How Twitter is Being Gamed to Feed Misinformation,’ which discusses the role of bots in influencing public opinion.
    • Read the excerpt below as a class and answer the following two questions:
      • “Every tweet comes with a counter of Likes and Retweets, and users come to internalize these metrics as proxies for real-world popularity. Yet these metrics can be gamed. Because a single Twitter user can create lots of accounts and run them all in a coordinated way, Twitter lets relatively small groups masquerade as far larger ones. If Facebook’s primary danger is its dissemination of fake stories, then Twitter’s is a ginning up of fake people.” 
        • What problems might fake bot accounts create for a person following a political race on Twitter?
        • Do you agree with Manjoo that Twitter bots may be a ‘growing and terrifying scourge on democracy?’ Explain your answer. 
  2. Are you a bot or not? If you don’t have a Twitter account, pair up with a student who does or take a look at your school’s official Twitter account. Go to Botometer.org (Bot or Not’s new website). Check the Twitter accounts of your U.S. senator, the President, a teacher, a student and a couple of celebrities to view their bot status. Note: The higher the percentage, the greater the likelihood is that the account is a bot.
    • Notice anything about the percentages? While the Botometer is a decent early attempt at trying to figure out which Twitter accounts are phony, the percentages even on real accounts tend to skew high. How do you think you could innovate or improve Botometer, so that you could better figure out if the account is a bot or not?
    • What patterns might you look for in Twitter accounts (i.e. handle name, profile, image) to see if it had a higher chance of being a bot?
    • What patterns did you see in accounts that had a lower chance of being a bot?

Main activity:

  1. Watch the PBS NewsHour video: “Cracking the stealth political influence bots.”
  2. After the video, have students work with a partner and write down answers to the following questions:
    • Where do you get your news?
    • What apps do you use?
    • Had you heard of bots before this lesson?
    • Who invented the bot? How could you find out?
    • Did you ever question if a social media account was a real person or not? What was the circumstance?
  3. Next, students should talk with their partner and make a list of the risks bots pose to a democratic society, particularly on elections. Include possible solutions for any risks, including solutions that may have not been invented yet. 

Invasion of the Bot-y Snatchers 

Believe it or not, the Internet is made up mostly of bots. More than half of the Internet is made up of automated programs or bots, (everything from the bot that refreshes your homepage to those fake accounts on Twitter). Many of them are up to no good. But about 23 percent of bots on the Internet play a helpful role; they are referred to as ‘helper bots.’

The Charge: Invent a helper bot via Twitter that brings awareness to an issue and may even result in a change for the better. (Students will not actually put their bot online.)

  1. Working individually, students should think of a problem that they are curious about in their school or community. Examples may include a range of issues like climate change, endangered species, homelessness, bullying, dress code, etc. Explain to your students that identifying a problem is the first step of the invention process, which students (and all inventors for that matter!) will use to complete this project. Ask students what steps make up the invention process? Write these steps on the whiteboard and be sure students record them in their notes.
  2. Students should research and take about one-page of notes on their issue; include sources at the end. As part of their research, encourage students to visit local or regional news sites, local and state government home pages or talk with their student body government representative or principal.
  3. Sketch a helper bot that brings public awareness to the issue. Your bot will explain possible solutions to your problem. For example, if you picked bullying, your bot might share ways in which we can decrease bullying or tips on how to handle certain situations. Remember, your Twitter bot is a helpful invention designed to raise awareness around the topic of your choice. Include the following information in your sketch:
    • Twitter page with a relevant cover photo
    • Profile picture
    • Handle
    • Biography
    • 3 to 5 tweets: Be sure to explain the problem you are trying to solve in your tweets as well as possible solutions.
    • 2 likes and 2 retweets: You can make up the organizations or individuals that like or retweet you, or you can use real ones if you think they’d support your idea. All likes and retweets should be relevant to the problem. (You may need to use a large piece of paper or tape pieces together to make room for your tweets.)
  4. Have students present their bot to the class. Ask for any questions at the end of the presentation. Based on feedback from your classmates, do you think your bot could be a success? Why or why not?
  5. Debrief: As a group consider the following reflection questions:
    • Who might benefit from a your bot? Does it matter that there’s not a human behind the bot?
    • Do you think human activity will overtake bot activity online? In 2016, human traffic overtook bot traffic for the first time since 2012, but this last year bots pushed ahead one again.
    • Would you prefer to know if an account is a bot or not? Do you think bots will play a bigger role on the Internet in the near future? Explain.
    • What are the ethical considerations around the creation of “helper bots”? How about harmful bots?
  6. PBS NewsHour Extra would love to hear how you used this project in your class. Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra and send any images of you and your students and their helper bots. We will share on Twitter and Facebook. Plus, we will send you a PBS NewsHour Extra stress ball and thumb drive.

Extension activity:

Have you ever tried coding? Maybe you have been curious about it but didn’t know where to start. Now is your chance. In this activity, you will explore an existing chatbot and have the opportunity to develop your own. Imagine being able to write code that analyzes human behavior to improve lives as mentioned in the video. Give it a try and create your own chatbot like the example here by following this this tutorial.


Brian Aspinall’s work focuses on STEM innovation in Canadian education. He was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence for his work with coding and computational thinking. Aspinall speaks on STEM education issues throughout North America and was selected as Canada’s first Minecraft, Micro:BiT, and Makey Makey Mentors. You can reach him at www.mraspinall.com.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Next Generation Science Standards

      HS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

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