Lately I’ve been taking a break from the realm of politics. I’m incredibly depressed about the choice we’ve been given, and at this point I’d prefer to just enjoy summer rather than focusing on the many flaws in the major party candidates and the lack of an alternative. I figure I’m going to have to live with one of these guys soon enough.
Then I ran across an interesting article about the role of software bots in modern political campaigns. It points out that, in an SEC filing two years ago, Twitter estimated that 23 million of its active accounts are generating tweets through the use of bots — defined as software agents or bits of code that are designed to automatically react to news events, always from a particular perspective. Of course, Twitter users don’t know if the tweets they are seeing come from a real person, or a paid shill — or a bot. You just can’t trust the avatar that accompanies the post to tell you.
The article reports that bots have been successful in steering the course of elections in South America and, apparently, the Brexit vote. A study found that a tiny fraction of Twitter accounts generated a huge percentage of tweets about the Brexit election — sustaining levels of incessant account activity that no mortal being could sustain, tweeting their robotic brains out 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and the “leave” campaign generated more of the automated tweets.
Do tweeting bots work? Some people involved in the bot-tweeting process think that there are many individuals out there whose views are more likely to be swayed by the “spontaneous” opinions of “real people,” rather than news reports or the reactions of paid commentators. Since Twitter and other social media sites allow for anonymity, then, why not spoof real people, create software that generates a constant flow of tweets that advance your political views, and see if you can’t alter the course of public perception? (And pay no attention to the sad notion that voters are swayed by opinions expressed in 140-character chunks, either.)
I suppose we should all think about this the next time we are asked to share a Facebook meme of uncertain provenance, or pay attention to tweet counts as supposedly being some kind of indicator of what real people are thinking. We’ve gone far beyond the innocent days of The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss’ landmark book about how the Nixon campaign was using Madison Avenue advertising techniques to package and market Tricky Dick. Now we’ve reach the point where campaigns create artificial accounts and flood the Twitterverse with phony tweets generated by automated robots, all in the hope of manipulating the views of the American public to vote one way of the other in the worst presidential choice in decades.
O Brave New World!