Illustration by Shelby Hohl
What lurid posters and leaflet campaigns were for 20th century propaganda, Twitter and Facebook posts are for 21st century. The internet’s viral capability as well as its tendency to continue delivering us what our page clicks imply we want to see more of, has made it a potent tool in the war to influence minds. It works, too, not the least because people on social media are consuming information in huge chunks with little time to taste or digest it, and it makes us feel so full of ideas we don’t always question whether that particular brain meal was wise. It’s the binge-drinking of data.
Earlier this year, it became inarguable that much of the mass information regarding the 2016 election originated from Russian intelligence agents. The bots and sock puppet accounts were capable of harnessing memes and trends to create huge waves of thought that would be quickly amplified by others. It was chemical warfare of the mind.
And it worked. Russian bots pretended to be Bernie Sanders supporters, helping to amplify to phenomenon known as the Bernie Bros and sending Hillary Clinton supporters fleeing to closed groups. Bots also infiltrated several pro-Sanders Facebook groups to disseminate memes and false news stories. Following the end of the Democratic primary, bots began to abandon Sanders supporters to focus on helping Donald Trump, though they largely used the same effective tactics.
Heck, I somehow still had one of these on my own friends list last week, which popped up when I mentioned Clinton in a Facebook post to begin spamming me with anti-Clinton propaganda (which matters now for some reason). Some of my friends, unaware they were not in fact arguing with a person in good faith, wondered how to tell it was a bot. So today, I’m going to present a brief guide on avoiding this mess in future elections.
Characteristics of Russian Bot
Before responding to an all-caps angry rant extolling Donald Trump, click on the person’s profile. Bots and sock puppeteers are not clever or industrious. They rarely take the time to create well-rounded personalities as they know they are essentially the internet equivalent of a burner phone. Their profile pics tend to be stock models, especially pretty women, and clicking on them will usually show they didn’t even bother to crop the watermarks out.
Their page usually has no indication this is a person who actually lives a life. No pictures of kids. Few friends (and almost exclusively male as men are quicker to accept friend requests from a random woman than vice versa). Often the profile is only few years old at most, and contains no lifestyle milestones or discussion except possibly links to dodgy political sites.
Also, beware of profiles of people who you know who begin to act uncharacteristic and strange. It’s a common practice for bots to copy other people’s profiles and resend friend requests. Beware if you see a familiar face you didn’t know unfriended you coming back. Odds are, your old friend is still there and this is a cheap imitation.
In communications, bots will usually start by yelling, and quickly move into responding entirely in memes. Memes are easier for foreign bots as they can provide a mass response that only needs a language and grammar check upon creation. They also spread well, and ultimately that is…
The Goal of a Bot
I need you to understand something and try to keep it close to your heart; not everyone on the internet is telling the truth or has your best intentions in mind. Bots arrived because Vladimir Putin wished to destabilize American elections and, if possible, prevent a powerful politician who had thwarted his ambitions in the past from attaining power. He and his psyops did not do this for our benefit.
They weren’t even trying to win an ideological war. Bots were not trying to convince Clinton supporters to switch sides. That wasn’t the goal. That’s not how modern mind control works.
The purpose of the bots was 1. To flood the internet with so much rage and media it felt suffocating. This would be helpful to dishearten Clinton voters. 2. To shift the rhetoric so far into the unreasonable that it made bad behavior seem reasonable by comparison. A person angry at the losing efforts of Sanders or the liberal agenda or whatever might not normally start screaming “lock her up” in the course of their rational life, but inundate them with enough pretend-people saying far worse and a wealth of unverified conspiracy theories and suddenly they assume they are the calm middle ground.
The campaigns work because when you put enough mass behind an ideological push, when it seems like “everyone is saying it,” real people can be counted on to boost the signal and fight the actual ground war.
The Effect of Bots
Bots are an infectious agent, but they are not the pandemic. Since they’re not real people that other real people actually care about, they make a poor vector for the virus to spread.
That’s where we come in. What a bot is hoping we’ll do is swallow some meme or story, regurgitate it, and that others will continue to do so. By the time someone steps in with a counter-opinion or a debunking, the infected population can reinforce itself through group-think and confirmation bias. Think of it like a mental zombie attack. One zombie, easily defeated. Ten zombies, all with the same target, much harder.
If these arguments take place on a friend’s page, then their friends become exposed, and they may quietly or not so quietly begin spreading the virus themselves. And to their friends. And so on. Before you know it, you are cut off in a sea of people all agreeing on a wrong thing.
Following the revelation of the bots and their effect on the election, I had a lot of Sanders supporters rationalizing that the harassment waves that came from that camp were all merely the work of bots, but that just isn’t true. What happened could only happen when real people allow what the bots say to guide their actions.
And Clinton supporters? Don’t get smug, either. If Sanders had come from behind and won the primary, the resentment felt from the bot operations would likely have prompted the bots to begin targeting the Clinton camp to help pull the same trick on Sanders after the fact. That’s the beauty of a bot attack. There is literally no scenario where the attacker can lose. But then…
How to Stop Bots
To keep with the virus analogy, vaccination is the only possible solution. Upon identifying a bot, report their profile and block them. If it happens on a comment thread, delete their comments and let everyone know that the person wasn’t real. Report any memes that you saw they were sharing as spam.
This isn’t about free speech. There is nothing to be gained by dealing with agents of a foreign power masquerading as concerned citizens, and if we aren’t to repeat the absolute carnage of 2016 we have to stop pretending weaponized information doesn’t influence or harm us.
Dealing With Social Media Bots in Future Elections: A Guide syndicated post