We’re finally in the Victoria and Albert Museum

In 2016 I was approached by the curators of The Future Starts Here exhibition, currently on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, to develop a political bot along the lines of those Etic Lab observed in the heady days of the EU Referendum and later the American Presidential Election. 

It has been a long time coming (the gallery the exhibition was due to be housed in was redeveloped at the time the exhibition was due to launch) but this week I was proud to say my work has gone on display in the V&A.

In the intervening time between commission, Twitter has made many changes to its API and the monitoring it does for troll and bot like behaviour. In fact, a direct example of what was proposed in 2016 would no longer be possible, just for the simple reason that Twitter has banned joining of trending topics  – a key feature early bots used for spreading misinformation or abuse.

As a result, the design and implementation of the bot had to change from one of simply promoting and manipulating Social Media discourse through trolling and mass promotion of material, to one which could engage with an audience and demonstrate some of the capabilities a simple automated Social Media programme has.

The original bot was also proposed in the character of an investigative journalist which would interrogate Members of Parliament who had twitter accounts, asking questions relevant to the issues on which they had spoken in the HANSARD report (A python module Etic built and used during 2016). This proved a little too risky for the V&A press team who instead requested that we ask pre-approved ‘tech influencers’ questions relevant to the exhibition themes such as bitcoin, loneliness and space travel. I decided to go one step further and give it the ability to watch news feeds for stories relevant to these themes – sharing them with the ‘tech influencers’ and asking them for an opinion. Of course, any replies it receives it retweets and shares with its followers.

Etic has also curated what we have called a ‘Bot Zoo’ during its research of the past 3 or so years. This contains straight up botnet controlled accounts, engaged in activities ranging from spreading religious poetry to more overt political statements, as well as interesting and creative bots such as those produced by media theorist Mark Sample. 

The bot in the V&A is more than happy to share these bots with its audience and has even ended up in conversation with some, as they got trapped in a loop of automated replying in response to each other!

Finally, Etic and our colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda project, Google Jigsaw, and the Institute for the Future have been working to map, interrogate and contribute to the use of PolBots for a long time and the bot is designed to try and share this work with people encountering them for the first time in the exhibition.

You don’t need to visit in person in order to chat with the bot. You can find it here at: @futurepolitica1

And if you’re keen to have a go at automating your own twitter account, why not check out our apps, built on the same technology that drives the Future Political Bot?

The exhibition runs until November 4th and is well worth a visit. It was wonderful to meet some of the creativity people from around the world and experience the things they care about. Ooh and there’s a self driving car built by the sponsors.