Heather D. Freeman, Producer/Director


Department of Art & Art History

UNC Charlotte

9201 University City Blvd.

Charlotte, NC 28223

© 2017 by Heather D. Freeman

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3. bot \ˈbät \ n.

3 : a computer program or character (as in a game) designed to mimic the actions of a person

"Bot." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2017.

A bot is "a device or piece of software that can execute commands, reply to messages, or perform routine tasks, as online searches, either automatically or with minimal human intervention (often used in combination)." []


A social bot is "a type of bot that controls a social media account. Like all bots, a socialbot is automated software. The exact way a socialbot replicates depends on the social network, but unlike a regular bot, a socialbot spreads by convincing other users that the socialbot is a real person." [] 


Social bots can be a powerful tool for the greater good: they help us find answers to questions, facilitate problem solving, and there's research to suggest they can be power tools to help in times of crisis. But there is also mounting evidence that they are being used to quietly disrupt democracies through the spread of misinformation in online social networks.  How these malicious bots infiltrate social networks, and how they facilitate the spread of misinformation is the subject of many studies. But why individuals, companies, and governments employ bots to spread misinformation is also an open question.



A meditation on bots, familiars, and how technologies shape world views.

This feature-length documentary will consider two distinct areas of research: social bots (malicious ones in particular) and early modern conceptions of the witch's familiar. Both the malicious social bot and the witch's familiar are seemingly uncanny entities: non-physical, shape-shifting, and under the direction of hidden and malevolent individuals.  But where these two forms diverge -- both in their definitions and their very real impacts upon communities -- illuminates a great deal about the behavior of people: how we define ourselves against others, and how we're inclined to muddy the distinction between truth and belief.

Most historians estimate between 40,000 and 60,000 people were killed for the crime of witchcraft between approximately 1400 and 1750.  Individuals confessed to being witches under torture and accusations of witchcraft were the result, not of diabolic forces, but extreme societal upheaval from the Reformation, the 'Little Ice Age', wars, famine, and plague.

Today, computer scientists struggle to get one step ahead of those who develop, buy, and deploy malicious social bots. Meanwhile, users of social media -- like you and me -- are just now becoming aware of the data mining and misinformation in social networks.  Increasingly, we gather information from on-line spaces, relying on individuals in our virtual social networks to validate and share information.  Yet social media sites are designed for speed, and most users tend to 'like', 'retweet', and 'share' articles and links without actually reading them, much less thoroughly investigating the legitimacy of the source.  And this is not a 'partisan' problem: snappy headlines and flashy, 'triggering' images and content tend to get shared more, whether 'left' or 'right' wing, whether true or false. 

In Familiar Shapes, we meet computer scientists, historians, and sociologists, and economists who dig into the fundamental questions underlying these phenomena:


Why do we believe what we believe?

How do we decide if something is real?

And what happens when we, as a society, decide fictions are reality?



1. fa·mil·iar \ fə-ˈmil-yər \ n.

3. : a spirit often embodied in an animal and held to attend and serve or guard a person


"Familiar." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2017.

Bots are a relatively new invention.  But the concept of familiars has been around for centuries, although it primarily existed in England.


The familiar could help the witch achieve his or her goals by destroying property, and harming livestock and people.  In exchange, the witch gave the familiar a cozy place to stay and fed it, often with his or her own blood.   While some familiars took on fantastic forms, most were commonly found animals: dogs, cats, mice, toads, insects and other common animals. And both familiars and witches could sometimes change their shape in order to commit their diabolic crimes. 


To the early modern English person, the Devil was real, and he was infiltrating their communities with witches.  These women and men formed pacts with the Devil in exchange for his sinister familiars.


People accused of witchcraft in early modern England were mostly women, often older, and frequently marginalized members of their communities.  As social anxiety about witchcraft increased over the 16th and 17th centuries, it's easy to imagine how the cranky old woman at the end of her lane -- the one always talking to that scrappy piebald dog -- could be the witch accused of killing newborns. 




A surfing trip from early modern Europe to your cat's Instagram page.

Much of the world was rocked by the impact of social bots and trolls during the 2016 and 2017 elections and referendums in the United States and much of Europe.  But bots can also be beneficial, and many of us interact with bots (unwittingly) every day. 


In this documentary, we talk with computer scientists, historians, sociologists, and others to get a handle on social bots, disinformation, and the early modern witch trials.


This is a journey that travels from 16th century England to your smart phone. The road is both magical and technological, as it follows the history of human beliefs, biases, and behaviors.

To learn more about the interview subjects and the status of the film, please check out the blog and register for weekly email updates.