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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Current Events
Grade(s)
  • 7-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You are a U.S. senator. Another senator approaches you to co-sponsor a bill with her. The bill would prohibit the use of online “bots” to spread political messages. Bots are software programs created to complete automated tasks online. In recent years, they have become widespread across the internet, posting comments on social media feeds and the comments sections of news articles and blog posts. Bots can be programmed to spam certain pages, raising their ranking on social media feeds and causing that content to go viral. Some are even programmed to string together words and phrases that sound like real human comments and that wind up being reposted across the web.

Your fellow senator is concerned that bots are being used to create and spread misinformation that could sway voters during political elections. The content they promote is often biased or even fake, and it may be making it more difficult for citizens to develop informed opinions about issues and candidates. In some cases, the bots that spread political messages are not even based in the United States, increasing fears that other countries could be trying to meddle in American elections.

On the one hand, you know your constituents are not well-served by much of the content that bots are responsible for spreading online. And though you know the First Amendment protects free speech, you’re not sure if computer-generated messages or messages from foreign individuals attempting to influence elections should be protected.

On the other hand, you know that effectively regulating online activity that is generally conducted under-the-radar could be very challenging, and it seems possible that bots could also be used to create or promote helpful or interesting information that should be protected by the First Amendment.

Should you support a ban on using bots to spread political messages?

  1. Yes. Democracy depends on it.

     

    The First Amendment was intended to protect people, not programming. Bots are an unfair tool with the potential to damage our political process.

  2. No. Bots may be problematic, but they shouldn’t be illegal.

    There are human beings behind these tools who should have First Amendment protections. The First Amendment has always adapted to new technologies, and bots are just the latest innovation.

  • Should the First Amendment protect bot-generated messages? What about messages created by people but spread by bots? Does it matter who created the bot or why?
  • Who is best equipped to evaluate and regulate social media content — users, government, or the corporations themselves? Why?
  • How would you make sure content that is blocked is verified as bot activity and that users aren’t accidentally censored?
  • What happens when new technology changes the way bots work or replaces them altogether?
  • Do you think you can recognize bot-created or bot-shared content online? If yes, how? If not, what would help you be able to do this?

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