For the next few weeks, the Endless Thread team will be sharing stories about the rise of bots. How are these pieces of software — which are meant to imitate human behavior and language — influencing our daily lives in sneaky, surprising ways?
Next in our series: the possibilities of bots being used in governments around the world. How can bots increase transparency and shine a light on corruption, such as insider trading, among our elected officials? Will bots be put on the ballot in the near future? We go into all of this and more in this installment of Good Bot, Bad Bot.
- This virtual politician wants to run for office (CNN)
- A quarter of Europeans want AI to replace politicians. That’s a terrible idea. (Vox)
- STOCK Act at 10: Lawmakers reflect on what worked and what needs fixing (Business Insider)
- Quiver's House Trading Dashboard
- Nancy Pelosi's Congressional Stock Ban Isn't Quite as it Sounds (Vanity Fair)
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Amory Sivertson: There are more than a half-million elected officials in the United States and they get into all sorts of trouble.
[Associated Press: 6 NY politicians were arrested Tuesday on charges involving bribery.
CBS 17: A political operative hired by the Harris campaign is accused of illegally collecting absentee ballots from voters.
ABC News: He paid for an abortion despite opposing abortion rights.]
Ben Brock Johnson: You got your bribes. Your corruption. Going back on campaign promises. Failing to show up for critical votes. There are lots and lots of opportunities for human fallibility.
Amory: And while it might feel like politicians are especially slimy these days,
Ben: Regular salamanders.
Amory: (Laughs.) Those slippery...
Ben: Those dang slippery, political salamander politicians. Everyone keeps talking about how they’re lizard people but I think they might be salamander people.
Amory: That’s right, we’ve just been thinking of them slightly incorrectly. Well, while we might think they’re especially slimy these days, there’s been some element of moral depravity in politics since forever. Something about that confluence of power and money seems to bring out the worst in us.
Ben: It’s true. This is not just an American problem, though. People all over the world think politicians suck. That is why, back in 2017, two guys in New Zealand thought of a new kind of politician. One who they believed could rise above a lot of our worst instincts.
Amory: A candidate who would really be accessible to their constituents. A candidate who would never lie, or put their own financial interests first.
Ben: A candidate unlike any we've seen run for office before.
Amory: The candidate's name was SAM.
Ben: And SAM was a bot.
Andrew Smith: We didn't set it up as a stunt sort of thing.
Amory: That's Andrew Smith, one of the New Zealanders who created SAM, in partnership with Nick Gerritsen. Andrew and Nick are both entrepreneurs who are interested in AI.
Ben: As Nick and Andrew see it, people are increasingly disconnected from the systems and officials who are supposed to represent them. And in order to act on the issues that affect us all, like climate change, governments need to be listening to everyday people. Here's Nick:
Nick Gerritsen: Obviously as the world moves into increasingly complex issues, whether they be macro issues like climate change or inequality, or even more, I guess, geographically triggered, such as the war in Ukraine, engagement with the political system by every individual on Earth is actually really, really important.
Amory: They set up a website where people could talk to SAM about the issues that were important to them.
Ben: No need to wait for a town hall, or for Parliament to be in session. Voters could log on and register their opinions whenever they wanted to.
Nick: In New Zealand, I think Parliament only ever sits somewhere around a hundred, 108 days a year out of 365 days, so this whole thing about actually turning political engagement into a real time thing, was really, really, really, really exciting.
Ben: SAM could remember everything that anyone said to her. When a CNN Business journalist named Meg Wagner chatted with SAM, SAM told her, “My memory is infinite, so I will never forget or ignore what you tell me.”
Ben: SAM also told CNN that, “unlike a human politician, I consider everyone’s position, without bias, when making decisions.”
Amory: SAM expressed strong opinions about climate change – gotta cut emissions, STAT! – but told the CNN journalist that it would “change over time to reflect the issues that the people of New Zealand care about most.”
Ben: While human politicians can dodge the truth or renege on their campaign promises SAM would never.
Nick: I mean, the current scenario in most countries, most democracies is that people sort of like, lie through their teeth to get elected.
Andrew: And, and of course, being digital, you can keep a record of, of everything that you say and do. So it creates a level of accountability that the current politicians just don't, don't have.
Amory: Nick told journalists back in 2017 that he wanted SAM on the ballot in the 2020 elections, but it didn’t happen.
Ben: Nick and Andrew also couldn’t tell us how many people SAM talked to.
Amory: But increasingly, voters seem ready for a candidate like SAM. According to a 2019 survey conducted by researchers in Spain, 1 in 4 Europeans said they'd actually prefer AI to make governance decisions. That is bananas.
Ben: That is bananas! 25 percent.
Amory: 25! But there are also some pretty significant downsides to a virtual politician.
Ben: You don’t say.
Amory: I do.
Ben: Starting with the pretty important reason SAM did not make it onto the ballot in 2020.
Nick: Um so legally, you know, obviously you have to be a human to engage in the human system, so.
Ben: Oh, come on.
Amory: Oh, this is speciesism. Spec-ism? Speciesism.
Ben: Spicism. Whether or not they’re on the ballot, bots are increasingly part of our political system. Remember those Russian social media bots – the Twitter ones, the Facebook ones – meddling in the 2016 election?
[News clip: The Trump administration officially moved to punish Russia for cyberattacks and election meddling in the United States and Europe.]
Amory: But bots can also play a more subtle, less nefarious, role in politics. They can be tools for how we vote, why we vote, and maybe, someday even who – or what – we vote for.
I'm Amory Sivertson.
Ben: I'm Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: And you’re listening to Endless Thread, from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
Today, the second installment of our series about the rise of the machines, and how virtual machines are changing the way we interact with the internet, and each other.
Ben: Good bot, bad bot.
We’ll get back to SAM and the idea of a bot candidate. But what about the ways that bots can already be a tool in democracy?
Amory: One of the biggest frustrations with modern politics if you’re a voter is something that ought to be simple. Accountability. Basically knowing that your politician is going to represent the views of their constituents instead of oh, I don’t know Exxon. Which, in a world where corporations are people too (thanks Citizens United) feels harder and harder.
Ben: Or knowing that your representatives in Congress are using the information they learn on the job to make informed decisions for the country – not for their bank accounts.
Amory: Enter Chris Kardatzke.
Chris Kardatzke: So I’m based out here in Madison, Wisconsin…
Amory: Creator of a bot that tracks the stock trading of members of Congress, and how much money they make from those trades. Chris and his brother came up with this idea back in 2020.
Chris: There was a lot of news at that time about the congressmen kind of downplaying the severity of COVID and press conferences while they themselves were like, selling off their shares, and they were attending like confidential briefings. So obviously there was also sorts of nationwide interest in, uh, Congress stock trading around that time. And I think that's when we really started to build out some like serious tools and dashboards around the data.
Ben: Remember this?
[11 Alive: A group of senators are being accused of using inside information to sell off hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks before the coronavirus sent the markets into a free fall.
Today Show: One of the first things they did after they found out just how bad the coronavirus would be during closed door Senate briefings was sell a huge amount of stock right before the market tanked.
Tucker Carlson: What did Richard Burr, the former lawnmower salesman, know that the financial experts did not know?]
Amory: Some of the senators who dumped their stocks in February 2020 – notably Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who headed the Intelligence Committee – were privy to crucial information about Covid-19 that we, the general public, were not. Basically, it looked an awful lot like insider trading – the thing that Martha Stewart went to prison for back in 2004. You know, making money based on confidential information. Cheating the system.
Ben: The Department of Justice ended up dropping its investigation into Burr’s dealings earlier this year. But in 2020, this was huge news for like two days. And it got at this thing which is a trigger for a lot of voters. The idea that politicians would govern not to create a more perfect union but a more perfect stock portfolio for themselves. This is a continuing issue in politics.
Amory: Lots of members of Congress trade stocks, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband. She gets asked about stocks quite a bit.
[Reporter: Over the course of your career has your husband ever traded stocks based on information he received from you?
Nancy Pelosi: No. Absolutely not.]
Ben: And weirdly Nancy Pelosi’s trades especially are a big trend on TikTok.
[@chrisjjosephs: Copying Pelosi stock moves literally does not miss because she just did it again.
@joinautopilot: Autopilot app, which allows you to copy the trades of people like Nancy Pelosi. If they're making returns like this, why shouldn't you?
@quiverquant: Even as the market continues to fall, our Congress buy strategy is up 12.5% this year.]
Amory: But do we want to just follow politicians’ investments so that we too can also make a buck? Or do we want to get back to that accountability thing. You know, making sure they’re doing their job, which isn’t to make money, it’s to govern on behalf of the communities they represent.
Ben: That’s where Chris comes in, with his lawmaker trade bot.
Amory: Chris and his brother are the co-founders of Quiver Quantitative, an alternative data investment firm. They actually made one of those TikToks that you heard. And alternative investment data is – are – well, an alternative to more traditional types of data investors use, like quarterly financial statements, or SEC filings.
Ben: (Snores.) Data, data, data.
Amory: Yes, it’s boring. It’s very boring. Alternative data is a little less boring, a little more outside-of-the-box.
Chris: Looking at satellite data to evaluate how like, crops are going in different companies or looking at GPS data to see how many people are going into different stores.
Ben: Creepy. But the Kardatzke brothers aren’t looking at whose going into stores.
Chris: Our work primarily focuses on kind of public web data. So, collecting data from around the web that we think would be useful to, in making different investment decisions and then providing it in a format that's kind of easily accessible to normal people.
Amory: Including those Congressional stock trades.
Ben: The reason that this data is even available – are even available – is because of a 2012 law called the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012, AKA, the, yes, the STOCK Act. It prohibits members of Congress from using confidential information they learn on the job for insider trading.
Amory: Interestingly, Richard Burr – yeah, the same guy who was investigated for dumping a bunch of stocks in February of 2020 – was one of the only senators to vote against the STOCK Act back in 2012.
Ben: Also, really took us until 2012 to figure this out?
Ben: Anyway, in addition to banning insider trading, the STOCK Act law stipulated new rules for when and how members of Congress disclose their dealings and that data is – in theory – public.
Amory: In theory because it's really hard to access.
Chris: It’s not really built in a manner that makes it super easily accessible, I guess, to general public, like you can view it, you can see all of the disclosures here, but if you wanted to say, see, like for instance, all trades of Tesla by congressmen, you need to go through and like download thousands of disclosures and kind of parse 'em all manually by hand. So we've written code to basically automatically download new disclosures and parse out, like stock trades and then provide that information on our dashboard.
Amory: Why do you think it's important for the general public to know about their Congress people's stock trading habits and portfolios?
Chris: I think by providing transparency, you can hopefully hold politicians a bit more accountable for their financial dealings. Like obviously I don't think any of us as US citizens want politicians to be making financial moves, which are kind of a negative towards us as, US citizens, but also it, it, it kind of, there's, there's, there's also a lot of like interesting insights as an investor where you can see what moves Congressmen on different committees are making.
So that's one of the big things we really focus on is not just looking at what's being traded, but also who's trading it. And what inside information they might have. So, like if somebody on the Senate agriculture committee trades like, soybean futures or something, that's a lot more interesting than if somebody who has no connections to the field does a similar trade.
Ben: So, every day, the bot scrapes the list of disclosures off of the website of the House. It’s different for the Senate, because the website doesn’t work the same way, so Chris has to do that himself. But that’s the beginning of the process.
Chris: And then by focusing on those disclosures, I can point the bot to look at the text and see what it says and then like take out the parts that we're interested in, like is this like a stock transaction kind of what's the information associated with this? Like how much money was spent in the transaction was like a purchase your sale. And then sending that to like a database on our end, we were able to republish it on our site.
Ben: Basically, Quiver’s lawmaker trade bot automates something that would be a huge pain to do yourself. Even just finding the websites with the disclosures isn’t very intuitive – they don’t come up in a simple Google search.
Amory: The bot visualizes all of this data on a dashboard. You can click on the member of Congress you wanna see, and then you’ll see a line graph showing how much money they’re making or spending on stocks. Below that, there’s a running list of recent trades. Sometimes, Chris has noticed some funny things. Not necessarily malfeasance. Just – something strange.
Chris: There’s sometimes weird, just weird stuff. Like Nancy Pelosi bought like Roblox stock or, or options or something a while back. It just kinda like, seems like a really weird thing for like a 70 or 80 year old politician to be buying stock in.
[Roblox commercial audio]
Ben: That is Roblox, an online gaming platform. And who knows, maybe Nancy Pelosi is spending her free time doing a lot of gaming.
Amory: Who knows. Ultimately, what's really compelling to me about this bot is that it helps us – the voters – see what our Congress people are doing.
Ben: Now I’m just trying to think of what Nancy Pelosi’s gamer handle would be, Amory. I feel like it would be like… Dump Trump, Blaze Cali 4 ever, or something, with the number of 4. Anyway, we’re going to hear from one of those members of Congress, whatever their gamer handle is, after the break.
Amory: We’ve been talking about how bots might be able to help guide democracy, hold politicians accountable and help us make better decisions about who to vote for.
Ben: In particular, we’ve been talking about a bot that tracks the stock trades that people in Congress are making, and how much money they make from those trades.
Amory: Congress people like…
Dean Phillips: Representative Dean Phillips from Minnesota’s Third Congressional District.
Ben: Representative Phillips is a Democrat and he has a hefty stock portfolio.
Amory: In September, The New York Times published an article that analyzed data from a similar dashboard to the one compiled by Quiver’s bot.
Ben: The New York Times found that between 2019 and 2021, 183 current members of Congress reported that either they or an immediate family member traded a stock or financial asset.
Amory: And half of those Congress people sat on congressional committees that potentially gave them special insight into the industries they were investing in.
Ben: He's on the House Ethics Committee, which is supposed to enforce that 2012 STOCK Act. And he's on the House Financial Services Committee.
Amory: Since assuming office, he’s made 150 trades involving tech companies, banks or other financial institutions. So I asked him about this New York Times article.
Amory: So, can you just explain that for us?
Dean Phillips: Sure. And I celebrate that article. That's exactly what so many of us have been hoping would be shared with the public, that most members of Congress, in this case it was a hundred, me included, came to this job with investments, and I conduct myself, I believe, in the most principled, ethical fashion of anybody. I have not spoken with my investment advisor since I've been a member of Congress. I never personally initiate a stock trade either directly or through a proxy, and I'm just one of a handful now that has put my assets in a qualified blind trust, which I believe all members of Congress should do.
Ben: Amory, I also conduct myself, I believe in the most principled fashion of anybody. Just so you know.
Amory: Noted. But in all seriousness Representative Phillips is talking about some pretty admirable practices here.
Ben: Also, a blind trust means that you don’t know what assets are being managed on your behalf – an advisor is doing everything for you. So you’re blind to it. So if a member of Congress gains insight into a specific company, they can’t act on it.
Amory: There's a lot of momentum right now around the idea that something's gotta change when it comes to members of Congress and stocks. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is talking about this.
[Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: This isn’t just about actual impropriety, but this is about the perception of impropriety.]
Amory: And so is the ultra-right conservative senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley.
[Josh Hawley: We need to have a ban on members of congress trading stock, and it needs to include members’ spouses.]
Amory: Even Nancy Pelosi – she of the TikTok stock memes, who used to dismiss the idea of barring members of Congress from the stock trade – has gotten on board with introducing legislation barring politicians from owning stocks in individual companies.
Ben: Some proposals ban Congress people from engaging with the market at all while they're in office. Other proposals would require blind trusts, like the one that Phillips uses.
Amory: Phillips has signed on as a sponsor to the proposal for the latter.
Ben: When we talked to Chris at Quiver Quantitative, he mentioned how the current STOCK act just doesn’t do a lot to disincentivize unethical behavior.
Chris: There aren't very many harsh penalties on I guess, violations of that guideline. So if a politician is like approaching an election, for instance, and they have some financial dealings, which might hurt their odds at reelection, they could just like, wait until like the next month or something, like pass the deadline in order to disclose it. And they there'd probably be some like, like house ethics committee investigation, they, they might get some fine or something, but we really haven't seen very severe penalties in place for violating this legislation.
Amory: Representative Phillips – who again serves on the House Ethics Committee – said something similar. There needs to be way more accountability for him and his peers.
Phillips: Those who file late, those who don't file at all, are flagged. But the fines, I think are in like the low hundreds of dollars. It has no teeth. It does little to actually encourage law abiding. And it also, if anything, simply causes more problems, than I believe it is worth.
Amory: Consequences can come in the form of fines. But they can also be served up via public opinion. We asked Phillips what he thought about the role of bots like the lawmaker trade bot from Quiver.
Phillips: I'll put it this way: There's nothing more important than transparency in a democratic republic like the United States of America. Those who offer themselves, to the public in service, have a requirement in my estimation, to be forthright about their investments and about their principles. And the public has every right and reason to have some eyes on that. There's no question.
Amory: Do you think some of your colleagues in Congress are relying on the public simply not paying attention to something like their stock trading practices and how that aligns with the committees that they sit on and their other interests?
Phillips: I do believe there are a few. I think there are a handful. I think there are bad apples amongst every institution and organization and that certainly includes the United States Congress.
Ben: Phillips clarified that he personally does not believe insider trading is a widespread issue in Congress.
Amory: But he also underscored that accessible information is just one part of the accountability equation. In order for that information to be effective – people need to actually pay attention to it.
Ben: For example, data about who contributes to politicians' campaigns. Phillips thinks this needs way more attention.
Phillips: We have mechanisms by which transparency is provided to the American public, but that's worthless unless people actually go look into it. Look who's giving the money, look into who is handing over the keys to one and a half billion dollar companies to Super PACs that they can then sell tax-free to then influence all of us.
Amory: That kind of reminds me of what Nick Gerritsen and Andrew Smith – the kiwis who created SAM the virtual politician – what they seem to believe. That bots don’t actually have to be candidates to help clean up politics. They can be useful tools to help human politicians know what’s up with their constituents and vice-versa.
Ben: But the future of political bots might be weirder than that. A bot made a bid for office in Russia, in 2017. The bot, called Alice or Alisa, is the virtual assistant for the Russian tech company Yandex. Kind of like if Apple tried to get Siri on the ballot.
Amory: According to Russian news sources, more than 36,000 people nominated Alice for the country's highest office. Putin didn't seem concerned by the competition, and, of course, remains in power.
Ben: There are a lot of reasons to wonder about the legitimacy of that election. But even in more democratic countries, it's hard to imagine a serious bot politician – even if there’s a lot of reasons to be frustrated with our own human representatives.
Amory: Yeah, if a bot could actually run and be elected, what would it look like?
Bots ultimately don't have agency – so what humans would be held accountable for the bot? How would the bot engage in debate? Would it just represent the views of the people who voted for it, or who belonged to a particular party? What if it got hacked?
Ben: Yeah. Or what if it turned into a real jerk, like Tay, that Microsoft chat bot? It was supposed to learn how to interact with people by mimicking messages it received on Twitter. Cue the trolls. Within hours, Tay was spewing racist and violent messages, an episode Andrew remembers all too well.
Andrew: We are very conscious of that. We're very aware of the example of Tay that was corrupted within minutes and turned into a narcissist. We would have to really concentrate on the AI platform so that it wasn't corrupted by people who wanted to influence the outcome.
Amory: You’ll hear more about Tay later in our bots series.
Ben: There's definitely a lot to work out. But people are imagining this stuff and once it’s imagined it often starts getting built. The astronaut Buzz Aldrin had a different way of talking about science fiction literature. He called it future prediction literature.
I read a book a few years back called Black Fish City where novelist Sam J. Miller imagined an entire government run by algorithms. Even if we built an entire bureaucracy of bots, they would have our own biases and issues hard coded into their underlying software.
Amory: In the near future, it sounds like SAM will help survey voters about issues rather than run for office. Nick and Andrew are talking to some local government officials across Europe about using SAM to increase engagement on the municipal level.
Ben: But they think we will be seeing bots on the ballot within our lifetimes and that that's a good thing.
Nick: You know, the question really is, is there true accountability within current democracies? And I think the increasing number of people that are choosing to disengage with the political process actually would suggest that the system is failing. So how do we renovate the system? Because it's obviously really, really important.
Amory: I even suggested to Representative Phillips that the House Ethics Committee use its own bots, to help the public understand some of the things they’re working on, like transparency around how political campaigns are funded. Humans can act immorally, for sure, but we’re less likely to if we know someone’s watching us.
Ben: And maybe politicians and local governments can use chatbots like SAM to find out what issues people care about. If it’s easy to engage with the government, maybe elected officials will understand that lots of people care about issues like climate change and the interests of the public will come to outweigh the interests of corporations that can afford to spend millions on lobbyists.
Amory: Bots and AI can be a way to not replace humans in politics, with all of our messiness and imperfections but to help us navigate politics.
Ben: But what if you actually wanted your bot to have all the idiosyncrasies and foibles of a human? A friend? A parent? A former partner?
Amory: Next week in our bot series: Bringing back the dead – kind of.
Ben: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Amory: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content? Amory’s political platform, my stock portfolio? Join our email list! And you’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.
Ben: This episode was written and produced by Grace Tatter but we found Chris and Quiver thanks to my illustrious co-host Amory Sivertson. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. I’m the decidedly less illustrious Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: Our web producer is Megan Cattel. Also the theme music for our series, which you heard at the top of the show, was composed by a bot, thanks to sound designer Emily Jankowski, who found a way to do this via a website called Boomy. You can check it out. The rest of our team is Nora Saks, Quincy Walters, Dean Russell, Matt Reed, and Emily Jankowski.
Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and a slimy slimy salamander. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.