The 2016 election was arguably one of the most surprising in American history. Since
former President Donald Trump was elected to office, myriad theories have explained
The discovery of over 50,000 Twitter bots (automated profiles that mimic real accounts)
linked to Russia stoked fears that bots had influenced the 2016 election.
This article revisits the 2016 election, examines the role bots played in its outcome, and
assesses implications for the future.
The 2016 Elections: A Brief Overview
The 2016 election campaign was fraught with controversy.
Few expected Trump to even qualify as a candidate, let alone actually win the
Trump’s preference for speaking off-the-cuff made him stand out from the beginning. He
also made several inappropriate and inflammatory comments that news outlets,
Amid the campaign, an Access Hollywood recording was released that caught Trump
making extremely lewd comments about women. Adding to the embarrassment, the
recording was made in 2005 when Trump was newly married to his third wife, Melania.
Trump’s campaign was also hit by allegations that his then-campaign manager, Paul
Manafort, was paid off by a pro-Russian Ukrainian organization.
However, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also faced her share of issues when
WikiLeaks shared almost 50,000 emails from then-campaign manager John Podesta’s
Some of the emails poked holes in Clinton’s image, raising questions about her actions
while serving as secretary of state. Some also hinted that Hillary and former President
Bill Clinton appeared at various events in exchange for substantial monetary donations
to the Clinton Foundation.
Many news outlets reported that Russia might have been behind the leaked Clinton
emails. An FBI investigation later corroborated this claim.
A late-election surprise came for Clinton when James Comey, then director of the
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), re-opened an investigation into Clinton’s private email server. Clinton had kept the server in her home while serving as secretary of
Although Comey closed the case, finding no fault with Clinton’s conduct, Clinton’s
popularity took a hit.
advisor, Michael Flynn, lied about a phone conversation with the Russian ambassador.
It also came to light that the FBI had begun secretly investigating the Trump campaign
before the election on suspicion of conspiracy with Russia.
In 2017, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed to supervise an FBI
investigation into Russia’s possible interference in the 2016 election. The investigation
also examined whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials to influence
the election’s outcome.
military officers for several acts of cyber warfare. They were accused of several large-
scale hacks, including stealing Podesta’s emails. Some Republican candidates were
also targeted, as was the Republican National Committee.
No evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia was found.
In 2018, further evidence arose that Russian social media bots were deployed on
Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The bots’ impact on the 2016 election has been much discussed, with many implying
that they helped sway the election towards a Trump win.
The Role of Botnets: Amplifying Polarization
Bots are used in social media for various purposes. Some are made purely for
entertainment. Others carry out helpful tasks like organizing threads. But these types of
bots receive far less attention and are far more benign than spam bots or those
weaponized for information warfare.
In information operations, individual bots are often organized into groups of botnets with
a united purpose. This is more cost-effective than employing people to flood social
media platforms as trolls.
Botnets were likely used during the 2016 presidential campaign. British researchers
also studied a botnet on Twitter comprising over 13,000 accounts. This botnet was
active before the Brexit referendum and disappeared after the vote.
One reason botnets may be an effective method of shaping public opinion is social
influence. A well-known psychological experiment showed that participants varied their
answers to a simple question depending on whether they were alone or in a group.
When in a group, people edited their answers to conform with others.
If a platform like Twitter is flooded by bots all sharing similar messages, they give the
illusion of majority group opinion. This could cause people to reassess their views or
refrain from sharing them.
Bots may also increase polarization. On social media, radical, outraged voices tend to
be amplified. If there are large numbers of bots spreading these types of messages,
they have the potential to drown out more reasonable opinions.
Since botnets effectively spread information, they could also be used to encourage
people to accept false or distorted news as fact. Psychologists understand that people
are subject to something called the illusory truth effect. When information is repeated,
people receive it as truth. When thousands of fake Twitter accounts tweet and retweet
the same false information, people may start to believe it.
For more on bots and how advertisers use online tools to convince you to buy, tune in to RSnake’s chat with advertising expert Marty Weintraub
Assessing the Impact: How Botnets Could Have Changed the Election Outcomes
Whether botnets influenced the 2016 elections may never be fully understood. That
hasn’t stopped people from trying.
One study conducted in 2016 studied more than 20 million tweets from about 2.8 million
users. The researchers found that 400,000 users in their sample were bots generating
political content, representing about 20% of the conversation.
These are not insignificant numbers. Some research has found that when a more
marginal group reaches 25% of the population, it can create a tipping point in which
minority views become accepted by the majority. The number of bots in the sample was
very close to this threshold.
However, the bots represented in the study tweeted in support of both Democrats and
Republicans. Although 20% shared political content, they weren’t distributing the same
Still, since bots may help polarize people’s views and spread unverified information,
they may have contributed to the intense emotions felt in the election. It’s also possible
some people’s voting preferences changed based on misinformation.
Others say that since bots aren’t connected to people personally, they are less likely to
influence people’s opinions.
Another more recent study examined the effects of fake Russian Twitter accounts in
2016. It concluded that the accounts (either trolls or bots) linked to the Russian
government weren’t seen by enough Americans to impact election outcomes. But
researchers also admitted there were limitations in the study, which was conducted after
the election when many Russian accounts had already been closed.
Beyond 2016: The Continuing Threat of Botnets
With another presidential election on the horizon, the threat of botnets is ever-present.
Although Elon Musk vowed to “defeat the spam bots or die trying” before he bought
Twitter, shady bots were still on the platform in March of this year.
This is despite Musk’s attempt to put Twitter’s application programming interface (API)
behind a paywall in February. After uproar from the community, Musk backtracked and
stated he would continue to allow a “light, write-only API for bots providing good content
that is free.”
How the company will determine what " good" content is hasn’t been specified.
It’s also unlikely that a paywall would discourage powerful interests from creating
botnets. American Super PACs or other political groups have money to spend during
However, a paywall could make it more difficult for foreign groups to exert influence.
Since payment is typically associated with some form of identification, the paywall could
help identify money coming in from outside the country. However, sophisticated hackers
could likely mask their locations.
Twitter isn’t the only platform plagued by bots. They can be found on any social media
service and will likely remain during the next election cycle.
Since bots will likely play a role in the 2024 election campaign, the best strategy may be
to inform the public of their presence and possible impact. Once people understand the
influence bots can wield, they may use social media more cautiously.
Legislation and Cybersecurity: Counteracting the Threat
As Musk discovered, cracking down on bots isn’t easy. They may be used for nefarious purposes, but they are also used for good. And people love their bots.
Regulating social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the threat of bots
influencing the voting choices of thousands or even millions of Americans is very real.
On the other, too much regulation could compromise free speech.
Many users and social media companies object to increasing regulation. When the
Canadian government passed a bill requiring companies like Facebook to pay news
publishers for the use of their content, Facebook responded by deleting news from
Canadian feeds altogether.
However, some legislation has been more successful. The European Union introduced
a new Code of Practice in 2018, requiring social media platforms to close fake accounts
and label bots. Social media companies including Facebook and Twitter signed on to
the new standards.
In the U.S., for the time being, no bill regarding social media bots is forthcoming,
although some legislation aimed at curbing the power of shopping bots has been
For now, platforms are left to grapple with the problem of bots on their own while the
government turns its attention to securing voting systems.
The Future: Predictions for Election Security
The atmosphere surrounding the 2024 elections is already intense. The indictments
against Trump have ratcheted up anxiety even as primary races are just beginning.
With memories of the 2016 and 2020 elections looming large, citizens, politicians, and
news outlets are likely to be hypervigilant for any signs of election interference.
Increased vigilance by social media companies and the government could mean
botnets will be spotted earlier and taken down more quickly. Much time has passed
since 2016. Many people are more aware of the existence of bots and their dangers.
Yet, the threat of election interference continues to be significant. Hackers are becoming
more sophisticated. Tensions over the war in Ukraine may embolden other countries to
take more risks to destabilize the country.
Ultimately, only time will tell. American citizens and their government must continue to
While it is relatively certain that botnets were active during the 2016 election campaign,
there is no definitive proof they affected its outcome.
Although there is potential for botnets to spread unverified information, influence
people’s opinions, and increase polarization online, their true impact has yet to be fully
measured or understood.
In the meantime, people should be wary of bots. Here are some red flags to look out for:
∙The account shows a generic profile photo or a string of letters and numbers as a
∙The account is relatively recent
∙Posts appear day and night
∙Language is awkward or repetitive
It’s also best to read any information posted on social media with a critical eye. If you
want to keep tabs on the election, look for solid, unbiased news sources, then form your