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While the dangers and malicious uses of social media bots have been well documented, their potentially beneficial applications for U.S. national security actors have been far less understood — until now. A new CNA report, "Social Media Bots: Implications for Special Operations Forces," posits that social media bots hold significant untapped potential for meeting U.S. national security needs, particularly for U.S. special operations forces

Social media bots — automated programs that may interact with humans on social media platforms — are an untapped resource for those tackling complex national security challenges. As one example, social media bots offer opportunities for special operations forces to respond quickly to developing situations. This might take the form of bots curtailing a social media campaign that threatens to reveal critical location information about an ongoing military operation. In this case, the social media bots might "flood" or "fracture" this effort (two of the six categories of bot and botnet activities examined in the report) in order to hide the information threatening U.S. forces.

"While we do not deny the many malicious uses for social media bots, in our research we found three main reasons why they are such a powerful tool: they do not always require cultural expertise, they can be deployed quickly, and they are impressively versatile," said CNA research analyst and lead report author Meg McBride. "Given sufficient resourcing and authorities, U.S. actors such as special operations forces could use bots in a range of ways ultimately benefiting U.S. national security," she said.

A companion paper, "Social Media Bots: Laws, Regulations, and Platform Policies," explains the regulatory environment in which social media bots currently operate, detailing the complex web of legal provisions and social media platform policies governing social media bot employment. As this second study shows, the trend line clearly leans towards greater regulation, which poses both potential challenges and opportunities for special operations forces.

Social media bots and botnet activities are an undervalued and misunderstood, but potentially productive, tool for special operations forces and the U.S. government broadly. This new body of research lays the groundwork for continued study and exploration of how special operations forces and U.S. government agencies can further protect against the negative effects of bots, and potentially deploy them for U.S. national security gains.

The full report on implications for special operations forces can be found here, and the study on laws, regulations, and platform policies can be found here.