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.

Elon Musk’s Twitter Play

The media is reporting that Elon Musk–the driving force behind Tesla, and SpaceX, cultural and political gadfly, former Saturday Night Live host, and reportedly the world’s richest person–has been successful in his bid to buy Twitter. CNBC says that Twitter’s Board of Directors has accepted Musk’s tender offer in a deal that will provide $44 billion for Twitter shareholders and result in Twitter being converted from a public to a private company.

This story is an intersection of two things that are beyond my ken: the unimaginable world of the hyper-rich, and the curious universe of Twitter users and followers. Musk’s net worth reportedly exceeds $250 billion, which gives him plenty of resources to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. In this instance, Musk says he wants to buy Twitter to further free speech interests. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a prepared statement. Promoting free speech is a highly laudable goal, of course, and Musk’s track record in moving things like electric cars and space travel from dream to reality has been impressive.

But I think Musk is wrong to see Twitter as a “digital town square” where meaningful debate occurs. The next sentence of his prepared statement–where Musk says “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans”–illustrates why. For those people, like me, who don’t use it, Twitter seems like some weird, dystopian technoworld, haunted by bots and fake followers, where the 280-character limit for tweets requires turning complicated issues into simplified mush and encourages a kind of mean snarkiness not seen since high school. The tweeting record of President Trump bears witness to this fact, but his tweeting record is not alone. Twitter seems to bring out the worst in people, and most of us just don’t want to go there.

If Elon Musk really wants to promote free speech through his acquisition of Twitter, I wish him well, but I don’t think he can do anything that will lure me into that alternate reality, much less cause me to view Twitter as a “digital town square.” If Twitter is a kind of town square, it’s located in the darkest, creepiest part of town that most people would prefer to avoid.

Making You Stop And Think

I’m not a fan of bumper stickers. These days, they tend to be trite, or obscene, or at least crass — and usually a combination of those qualities. Bumper stickers, like Twitter, really aren’t suited for thoughtful discourse about anything more important than memorializing your visit to Wall Drug.

But every once in a while you see a bumper sticker that makes you stop and think — like the nifty message conveyed by this bumper sticker I saw on my walk this morning.

Another Date That Will Live In Infamy?

There are some notorious dates in American history.  FDR declared December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date that will live in infamy.”  September 11, 2001 obviously is another, and so is April 14, 1865 — the day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, and sent history veering off into a different direction.

96898152_twittermasthead

Should February 5, 2013 join them in the annals of infamy?

Why?  Because, according to this interesting article in Politico, that’s the date Donald Trump learned how to send tweets all by himself.  Before then, all of The Donald’s tweets were typed and sent by his social media manager.  But on February 5, 2013, Trump personally composed and issued a tweet that was a simple thank-you to an actress who said something nice about him . . . and the rest was history.

Of course, you can’t really equate mastery of Twitter with a bombing that pulled America into World War II, or the assassination of the greatest President in American history — but the Twitter breakthrough clearly has had profound implications.  Before, politicians and Presidents tended to communicate with the American people primarily through speeches and prepared statements that could be carefully vetted.  Now, tweets are issued directly from the President himself, without any ghost-writing or review.  Ill-advised 140-character (now 280-character) blasts thumbed in at odd hours can set a new direction for American policy or radically change the news cycle.

In my view, that’s definitely not a good thing.  But the genie has escaped the bottle, and you wonder if we’ll ever get back to the day when there is some kind of gravitas and mystique — and distance from the masses — to the office of the Presidency again.

And here’s an even more disturbing thing:  according to the Politico piece, President Trump’s former social media manager is advising him to “up his game” on social media and engage more personally with his supporters, by making his Instagram account more interesting and doing things like live-streaming from the Oval Office.  Hey, what could go wrong with that?

The President And The King

President Donald Trump has a particular, head-scratching talent for creating controversies that are both unnecessary and divisive.  The President’s recent insulting tweet about the intelligence of LeBron James is a classic example of a problematic character trait that just won’t go away.

lebron-james-donald-trump-jamilIn case you missed it, CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed LeBron James about a school James established for underprivileged children in Akron, Ohio at which every student receives free tuition, food, a uniform, and a bicycle.  It’s a classic example of James’ continuing focus on his old home town and using his celebrity platform, and his own money, to help those in need.  Even Cleveland sports fans who are disappointed that James has decided to play in Los Angeles respect his commitment to his roots in northern Ohio.

So where does the President come in?  Apparently he was miffed that James, who was an outspoken supporter of Hilary Clinton during the last campaign, responded to a silly question from Lemon by saying he might have to run if there was no one else to oppose President Trump.  That evidently was too much for our thin-skinned President, who then tweeted:  “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”

The silly question and answer provides no basis for insulting the intelligence of either LeBron James — whose public statements, whether about sports or other topics, are typically careful and thoughtful — or Don Lemon.  And the President’s ad hominem attack provoked many athletes, as well as First Lady Melania Trump, to make statements supporting James.  It’s just the latest example of how our touchy President’s inability to restrain himself produces another gratuitous, divisive controversy.

I’m not sure President Trump really takes advice from anyone, but you’d think someone could convince him to put down the Twitter feed for once and just let the economy do the talking.

Legions Of The Fake Followers

I don’t post on Twitter, and “follow” only Richard’s Twitter feed and perhaps one or two more.  Twitter is always asking me to follow more people and offering up suggestions about who I might find interesting, but I always delete the suggestions.  I don’t have time to “follow” the tweeted musings of dozens of people, and figure I’d spend more time deleting notices of their tweets than actually reading them.

So the statistics that purport to show that tens or hundreds of thousands of people follow the Twitter feed of random celebrities or unknown people whose shtick is simply to react to other social media posts, for example, or that Facebook posts have received thousands of “likes,” astonish me.  I shake my head and wonder:  How can so many people find time in their days to look at the detritus of social media?

wasted-resources-ecommerce-fake-socialThe answer is:  maybe they can’t, and actually don’t.  And maybe the impressive statistics that supposedly show that they do are filled with fake followers, and fake likes, from fake people.

The New York Times ran an interesting article over the weekend called “The Follower Factory” about how entrepreneurs, governments, and criminals have created entire legions of fakery.  Some companies have created thousands of fake, automated accounts and sell them to celebrities and businesses that crave followers and retweets to appear more popular on-line.  Facebook recently disclosed that 60 million fake accounts have populated its site, distributing likes and affecting “trend lines” and influencing advertising content.  Twitter and other social media platforms also are affected by fake accounts.  And when part of the power of social media platforms comes from their claims to have millions of people participating in their platforms, how aggressive and effective are the social media sites themselves going to be in policing the fakery?

The Times story quotes politicians who suggest that perhaps the answer to this is to come up with some kind of government regulatory scheme.  To be sure, the government should become involved if the fake accounts cross the line into identity theft.  But short of that, why should the government intervene if some pathetic former pro athlete wants to buy fake followers to puff up his social media profile?  And if the gullible are going to agree with a tweet because the tweeter has lots of fake followers, rather than because of the substance of the opinion expressed, or advertisers are going to accept fake statistics rather than insist on data that can be verified as reflecting the actions of real people, it seems like that is their own problem.  The government has bigger, more important, more concrete things to worry about.

We’d all be better off if people stopped paying attention to followers, and trend lines, and likes, and started to actually think things through themselves.

Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

About The Inaugural Address

At 11:30 today, Donald Trump will say the 35 words required by the United States Constitution — swearing on both the Bible used in Abraham  Lincoln’s inauguration and a Bible his mother gave Trump when he graduated from Sunday school in 1955 — and then, according to tradition, the new President will give an inaugural address.

I think the speech will be worth watching, or reading — not so much for what Mr. Trump says, but more for how he says it.

I think everyone would agree on one thing about Trump:  he’s not a conventional political speaker.  Most politicians employ speechwriters who draft carefully prepared remarks that are edited and polished to the nth degree and that strive to create memorable phrases that can be quoted by the press.  Trump doesn’t do that.  In the remarks I’ve seen him deliver, he doesn’t appear to follow a written speech, or even use a teleprompter.  Trump seems much more comfortable with Twitter, or with getting up to the podium with a few concepts in mind that he presents in a straightforward, conversational way, often repeating the same points several times during his remarks and mixing them in with observations about what he saw on TV last night or read in the paper that morning.

In the history of the United States, there have been a few memorable inaugural addresses and lots of totally forgettable ones — does anyone remember what Richard Nixon, for example, said in his first inaugural address? — but all of them have followed the pattern of a conventional political speech, where the newly sworn Chief Executive tries to inspire Americans with his vision for the country and present some enduring rhetoric.  Will Trump follow that pattern, or will he break from the mold in this instance as he has done so often in the past?

It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump trying to deliver the kind of lengthy, formal, scripted address that we’ve seen at other presidential inaugurations.  I’ll be interested to see if he even tries, or if he decides to go in a different direction altogether.

The President-Elect And His Tweets

Over the past few weeks, as the Donald Trump transition team has vetted candidates for Cabinet-level positions and geared up for the new administration that will take office next year, we’ve started to get a sense of what the next four years will be like.  With important decisions being made and critical planning underway, the post-election process is slowly revealing what kind of President Donald Trump might be.

If I could get one wish, it would be that Mr. Trump decide to stop using Twitter.

trump-the-hashI recognize this probably is a forlorn hope.  In many ways, Trump’s candidacy was driven by social media, and his tweets were a big part of the strategy.  Through his Twitter account, Trump had a forum for outlandish comments and was able to keep his name in the news.  His tweets provided him with lots of free air time, and his inclination, as President, likely will be to keep doing what worked well during the campaign.

And yet, the qualities we are looking for in a President are different from those that can drive a presidential campaign.  Dashing off a tweet seems fundamentally inconsistent with the considered judgment that we hope the occupants of the Oval Office will bring to the position.  (I recognize that President Obama has and uses a Twitter account, which I think is unfortunate, too, but without doing an exhaustive analysis I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that his tweets haven’t been quite as controversial as Trump’s.)

Consider one of the President-elects most recent tweets, which asserts that he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”   Of course, no evidence is cited (Twitter isn’t exactly known for that) but the claim that there were millions of illegal votes seems incredibly reckless — as well as bizarre, since Trump won the election and you would think the prevailing candidate wouldn’t want to cast any doubt on the results in any event.  It’s the kind of charge that might work for a candidate looking for some free media coverage, but it just isn’t suited to the President-elect.  Presidents don’t need to gin up controversy to get their names in the news.

Many Americans are fair and open-minded people; even if they didn’t vote for Trump, they will be willing to give him a chance to show how he will perform as President.  I think they are looking to see whether Mr. Trump shows the reflection and thoughtfulness that are a key part of what we think of as “acting presidential.”  Tweets just don’t fit into the presidential job description.

 

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!

Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

Millionaire Pie, And Other Goodies

Richard visited the Texas State Fair recently and made a herculean effort to eat some of the inventive food items being offered there — from Millionaire Pie to Kool-Aid Pickles to Fernie’s Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly.  The results are both hilarious and mouth-watering and are recounted in detail on Richard’s Twitter feed — just scroll down past the picture of the bug-eyed Lenin till you get to the food shots and follow along.

If you are a Twitter person, you could do worse than to follow Richard — his feed is both informative and entertaining.

 

Chips And Salsa

  
Even in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world, there are some immutable truths:

Donald Trump will say something stupid, and Hillary Clinton will say something that makes you wonder if she isn’t really a robot.

LinkedIn and Twitter will send you daily emails, trying desperately and with mind-numbing persistence to get you to follow more people and update your profiles.

At least once in every NFL game, a player will get an apparent concussion or season-ending injury.

And if you put a shiny dog food bowl of warm chips and cups of salsa in front of me, I will be unable to resist gobbling down every crunchy and spicy bite.

I honestly think I could eat my weight in chips and salsa.

Twitter Turnabout

Twitter is a good example of a double-edged sword.  When companies or entities try to use it for positive PR purposes, as often as not it backfires, and what is generated instead is embarrassing and often humorous.

As a very recent example, consider the New York City Police Department.  Some genius decided it would be helpful to ask people to tweet their pictures with members of the police force with the hashtag #myNYPD.  Clearly, the Department envisioned smiling photos of citizens and friendly, blue-coated officers.

But what actually happened didn’t go according to that plan.  Instead, people started tweeting photos of police officers handcuffing suspects, lashing out with batons, and otherwise engaging in less positive interactions with members of the public.  Other tweets identified people who had been shot to death by police and complaining about police brutality — as well as ripping the NYPD for a self-inflicted PR disaster.

The NYPD example probably should be taught in PR classes about use of social media.  What are the key elements of this colossal blunder?  One is a person or entity who lacks significant awareness of how they are actually perceived by the public and therefore can’t envision the negative tweets that their campaign might generate.  It’s hard to imagine that any police department would be blind to the fact that they aren’t adored by a significant percentage of the public — after all, the police regularly issue tickets, order people around, and arrest and apprehend suspects who proclaim their innocence, and those people have families and friends — but the NYPD apparently falls into that category. That’s amazing, and suggests that the PR decisionmakers aren’t adequately acquainted with reality.

A second element is a lack of understanding of human nature.  People who are angry and negative are far more motivated to post something than people who are happy and positive.  Tourists who were helped by members of the NYPD aren’t likely to take a photo or be aware of a Twitter campaign about the NYPD — but somebody who is convinced that the cops routinely engage in racial profiling will be monitoring and ready to spring when an ill-advised campaign gets underway.

If I were a company or a public entity, I’d be very cautious about inviting Twitter chatter.  Our grandmothers told us, “be careful what you ask for” — and that was wise advice,

Randomly Dissing The Browns

The Super Bowl is always a tough time of year for Browns fans. We know that, from Super Bowl I through Super Bowl XLVIII, the Browns have never made it. Not once. It’s an annual source of tremendous embarrassment.

So, it’s just adding insult to injury when people start making fun of the teams actually in the Super Bowl by comparing them to the woeful Browns. Last night a tweet went out from Purell, the soap people, saying that the Denver Broncos could use a “refresh” moment, “because right now they look like the Cleveland Browns.” The Purell people later said they “apologize for the insensitive post.” (Who even knew that soap manufacturers tweet about football games — or for that matter that anyone would pay any attention to them? I’m learning something new every day.)

I’m assuming the Purell people were apologizing to we long-suffering Browns fans, because the apology tweet had the hashtag “#Browns fans.” In reality, though, the apology tweet should have gone out to the Denver Broncos. They may have been getting their brains beat in in the biggest game of the year, but no one — no one — deserves to be compared to the Browns.