Why Botter: How Pro-Government Bots Fight Opposition in Russia

We investigate how pro-regime bots employ a variety of tactics to prevent, suppress, or react to offline and online opposition activities in Russia, finding online activities produce stronger reactions than offline protests.


There is abundant anecdotal evidence that nondemocratic regimes are harnessing new digital technologies known as social media bots to facilitate policy goals. However, few previous attempts have been made to systematically analyze the use of bots that are aimed at a domestic audience in autocratic regimes. We develop two alternative theoretical frameworks for predicting the use of pro-regime bots: one which focuses on bot deployment in response to offline protest and the other in response to online protest. We then test the empirical implications of these frameworks with an original collection of Twitter data generated by Russian pro-government bots. We find that the online opposition activities produce stronger reactions from bots than offline protests. Our results provide a lower bound on the effects of bots on the Russian Twittersphere and highlight the importance of bot detection for the study of political communication on social media in nondemocratic regimes.


The survival of non-democratic regimes largely depend on their ability to use social and online media to manage the information environment. Since its launch, social media has become a key ingredient to expand autocrats’ toolkits. There’s abundant research showing how non-democratic regimes like Russia use human troll accounts on social media to sow distrust and disseminate deceptive information. But research on how such regimes use bots — algorithmically controlled social media accounts — in the context of domestic politics is scarce.


To explore this question, we analyze different tactics pro-regime bots could use — including distracting and drowning out the opposition, inflating support for the regime, and harassing opponents — to prevent, suppress, or react to offline and opposition activities in Russia. From these strategies, we develop a set of hypotheses seeking to answer this question: Are bots primarily used as yet another tool to demobilize citizens when the opposition is trying to bring people onto the streets — or are they mainly employed as an online agenda control, or gatekeeping, mechanism tailored to regulating information flows on social media? We empirically test these hypotheses using a large collection of data on the activity of Russian Twitter bots from 2015 to 2018.


We find that pro-government bots tweet more and retweet a more diverse set of accounts when there are large street protests or increase in online opposition activity — and online activities produce stronger reactions. The effects of these increases are relatively small. Each pro-regime bot posts an average of one additional tweet, and retweets half an additional tweet, during online opposition mobilization, for example. However, by acting en masse, bots can produce substantial shifts in the volume and sentiment of political tweets. Although these findings are limited to the use of pro-government Twitter bots in Russia, and further research is needed to better understand how they could apply on other platforms or in other nations, uncovering these strategies remains highly important.