Real People, Real Politeness

For the past month or so, I’ve been getting very persistent emails in the same person’s name. The emails say they desperately want to help me to be better at my job. “Please,” they implore, “can’t we just schedule a short call to discuss our fantastic capabilities?” And then, when I delete those emails, I’ll get follow-up emails saying I must have missed the earlier emails, and asking to set up a call all over again. And when I delete those emails, yet another round will hit my inbox. It’s maddening that the putative person just won’t give up.

I’m fairly confident that I’m dealing with a robot here. There’s no way that a real person would be reaching out to some stranger, getting no response, and continuing to beat their head into the proverbial email wall. And yet, all of my upbringing teaches that when I see a person’s name, there’s a real person attached to that name, and the proper thing to do is to treat them with appropriate politeness. In this case, since sending any acknowledgement email is just going to provoke yet another totally unwanted email–and confirm that my email address leads to a real person, besides–“appropriate” politeness means just deleting the repeated emails without sending a fire-breathing response saying that I don’t need or want his help and please, for the love of God, leave me alone and stop clogging up my inbox!

I wonder if this reaction and assumption of a real person who deserves real politeness is due entirely to coming of age before the era of email and the internet. In those days, human beings were, in fact, on the other end of phone calls or mailed solicitations, and there weren’t bots blasting out millions of emails in hopes of getting one or two responses. But if you grew up instead when spam and bots were just part of the landscape, you wouldn’t hear that Mom’s voice in your head reminding you to mind your manners and could respond to unwanted emails as you saw fit, without worry or guilt.

It’s just another way in which Millennials and Generation Z have a leg up on the codgers these days.

The Lurking Bots Of The Twitterverse

Elon Musk recently announced that his $44 billion bid to acquire Twitter is “on hold” because of concerns about the number of fake accounts that make up Twitter user statistics. Musk issued a tweet that cited a news article reporting on a Twitter company filing that estimated that “false or spam accounts represented fewer than 5% of its monetizable daily active users during the first quarter.” Musk’s tweet said: “Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users.”

Musk’s decision to put a proposed billion-dollar acquisition “on hold” raises a key question: just how many Twitter users are actual, physically existing human beings who might respond to advertising on the social media platform and thus are “monetizable,” and how many are fakes that exist only in a computer, ready to artificially boost tweets and accounts with followings and retweets? And a related, and even more difficult, question is: how do you figure out who is real and who is fake in the Twitter world, where everything is done electronically? Wired has an interesting story about just how tough it is to separate the real from the fake in the Twitterverse, noting that looking at potential indicia of phoniness necessarily involves both subjectivity and uncertainty.

Attempts to quantify the number of Twitter bots out there suggest that there may be a lot of them. For example, Newsweek reported this week on an “audit” of the official White House twitter account for President Biden that concluded that 49.3 percent of his 22.2 million followers are fake, based on analysis of a number of factors that are used to identify bots. Another “audit” of Musk’s own Twitter account determined that more than 70 percent of his 93 million followers are likely fake or spam accounts. My guess is that Musk isn’t bothered at all by that kind of story, because it proves the point that he raised in his decision to put the Twitter deal “on hold” in the first place: there are serious questions about what is real in the Twitter world that should be answered before billions of dollars are paid for what could be an empty, non-“monetizable” gaggle of bots.

I don’t do Twitter or pay much attention to it because the Twitterverse seems like a strange, mean-spirited place that doesn’t bear much relation to real life as I know it. The kinds of “audit” results reported above raise still more questions about the reality of the Twitter world, and whether those raw numbers about Twitter followers and retweets should be viewed with some healthy, human, non-bot skepticism.

Facebook Changes The Rules

For years, I’ve had our WebnerHouse blog set up so that when I published a post on the blog, it would automatically be posted on my Facebook page.  On August 1, however, Facebook changed the rules.  Effective on that date, third-party platforms like WordPress can no longer automatically post to Facebook pages.

Why did Facebook make that change, exactly?

b9-bWell, apparently because . . . it’s Facebook and it can do whatever the hell it wants.  One website posits that the change was made to respond to the Cambridge Analytica debacle and is part of an effort “to remove re-sharing functionality for many apps . . . in order to limit the activities of auto-posting spammers.”

So, apparently Facebook lumps the WebnerHouse blog in with other bot-driven junk that has been filling Facebook pages for years.  Hey, has Facebook actually read any of the WebnerHouse content?  If they had, they would know that no bot or artificial intelligence could possibly come up with the dreck that poor readers find on our family blog.  Really, it’s an insult to Russian bots, Chinese bots, and every other bot out there.

So now, if I want to put a post on Facebook, I’ve got to do it manually.  It’s a pain, to be sure, but I guess it’s worth it to protect those Facebook pages from the Great Bot and Spam Invasion.

Dawn Of The Twitter Bots

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.

sellingofthepresident1968bThe 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!