Myth #30: Digital rights campaigns are run by bots, not real activists.
Myth: Like many other digital rights campaigns, the 2018/2019 protests against the EU Copyright Directive were not an expression of massive civic concern for digital rights. The protest campaign, the largest of its kind in recent years, was in fact a prime example of disinformation activities. It was a “fake grassroots uprising” by a small group of people who multiplied their numbers with the use of bots.
Busted: The suggestion that bots, and not humans, were responsible for many digital rights campaigns and especially the mass scale protests against the EU Copyright Directive originated with a group of artists rights’ activists and lobbyists. The accusations were made without providing any evidence of actual mass-scale bot activity.
In an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on activism in “the time of the bots”, the author argued that the 6 million calls and emails sent to the Members of European Parliament were largely automated. But many of those who argue that digital rights activism is run by bots confuse automation, which enables mass-scale online protests, with the use of “bots”: fake accounts.
It is true that online campaigning systems used for the SaveYourInternet.eu campaign (and other campaigns conducted during the EU Copyright Directive policy process) automate elements of activism. A user of the campaign website can for example easily connect by phone – for free – with offices of multiple politicians or effortlessly promote the campaign through social media, using automatically generated messages and graphics. Such automation allows economies of scale and network effects to kick in, allowing the campaign to grow exponentially. Still, a human user is needed to make the call, send an email, or share information on social media. Critics of the campaign have not provided any evidence that among the millions of citizens supporting the campaigns were fake accounts, bots.
The allegations struck a cord among some of the politicians in Brussels. Members of Parliament complained that their mailboxes were flooded with copy-pasted messages. With no tools available to parse communication from their constituents happening at such massive scale, some of them apparently treated it as spam. This is why the negative PR spin fell on fertile ground. It fuelled a sense of disconnect between politicians and their voters in a system that does not provide meaningful ways of engagement between the two groups. Politicians ignored a simpler explanation: network effects (#41) made possible by digital communication tools make mobilization at the level of millions of citizens possible, at relatively low cost. European citizens simply care about online freedoms and are willing to protest against laws which they perceive as threatening those freedoms.
Furthermore, rights holders’ lobbyists failed to mention that the same campaigning tools have been used on their side as well. As Corporate Europe Observatory notes, the real challenge has been the taking over of the public discussion by business lobbies representing big tech, publishers and collecting societies.
Truth: While automated campaigning tools have been employed to allow economies of scale and network effects to kick in, digital rights campaigns – such as the 2018 protests against the EU Copyright Directive – were supported by millions of humans, not bots, expressing their concern for online freedoms. Humans made calls, sent emails and shared information on social media – and protested on the streets with “We are not bots” becoming a successful slogan.
Source: Corporate Europe Observatory (2018), “Copyright Directive: how competing big business lobbies drowned out critical voices”, https://corporateeurope.org/en/2018/12/copyright-directive-how-competing-big-business-lobbies-drowned-out-critical-voices;
European Digital Rights (2018), Save Your Internet, https://saveyourInternet.eu.