Since the 2016 election, the American people have been inundated with firebrand rhetoric about the damage created by bots. According to USA Today columnist Chris Truax, “The goal of these trolls isn’t just to manipulate our elections, it’s to fundamentally damage our democracy and undermine our trust in American institutions.”
During the 2020 election, when asked about Russian efforts to influence American social media, former special counsel Robert Mueller firmly stated that Russia is attempting to influence the 2020 elections “as we sit here.”
As 2020 turned to 2021, the bot fixation shifted to “misinformation” about the coronavirus. Just as the American people were “tricked” into voting in the wrong way, they were now being “tricked” into making the wrong health decisions.
According to Carnegie Mellon University, nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages on the social media platform about the coronavirus pandemic are likely bots.
“We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that,” assumed Kathleen Carley, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.
A month after the Carnegie Mellon study, researchers and media alike turned their sights to a Danish randomized controlled trial conducted to determine if surgical mask use is effective at reducing coronavirus infections. As Forbes stated, a “flawed and misinterpreted study on mask effectiveness last year sparked automated software bots of unknown origin to target Facebook groups with conspiracy theories and misinformation, according to a new study.”
The John W.Ayers study Forbes mentioned, which by implication must be without flaw and above misinterpretation, aimed to explain the high level of propagation a Danish peer reviewed journal article achieved on social media- not exactly what most would consider disinformation. Despite the quality of the research and the credentials of those who conducted the Danish research, the Ayers bot study concludes that bots “promoted the mask study on Facebook groups to disseminate misinformation.”
Rather than attack the content of the Danish study, media outlets jumped at the chance to report on the Ayers study. Ghosts in the machine: Malicious bots spread COVID untruths and Covid-19 Misinformation Bots Targeted Facebook Groups, Study Finds are just two of the fear mongering articles addressing the negatives of a journal article being read.
The actual bot threat
In a hilarious twist, a new study examining the activities of bots draws a shockingly different conclusion: The majority of bots “tweet, retweet and mention mainstream media outlets, promote health protection and telemedicine, and disseminate breaking news on the number of casualties and deaths caused by COVID-19.”
For context, the Ayers study and its mainstream media cheerleaders criticized the Danish mask study because of a small sample size. The study done by Ayers used a sample size of 251,656 posts in 563 Facebook groups; the dissenting study used a total sample of over 50 million tweets.
In its discussion, the paper sums up the proportions involved: “We found that 12.7% of the top 1000 most active Twitter users who reference #COVID-19 and #COVID19 are bots, yet this percentage increases if we incorporate some of the deleted accounts as well as those that slightly scored below three out of five”
Despite the chorus of news outlets reporting on foreign disinformation campaigns, where is the whisper about the mysterious majority of bot traffic that toes the mainstream line? Where is that sense of indignation about the dangers of bot traffic?
For a brief example of what a bot message might look like, here is one that recently garnered a great deal of attention.
From the looks of this, there is nothing much going on. Mike happens to believe the English lock-down procedures should extend until at least Christmas.
What makes things interesting is that, just 5 hours before young Mike posted his response to the BBC, another man had an almost identical commentary.
Note that Sam’s tweet referred to the Indian variant, rather than the “Delta” appearing in the updated, more PC response to the BBC article.
From there, the disgust flooded the internet.
For more on the particulars of the Sam case, take a look at this terrific article we used in our research. Look up that comment on your favorite site. The results are shocking.
In our world, the surest way to knows the sins of your accusers is to listen to their accusations. With the internet being the final vestige of free speech, there should be no surprise to hear how we should let our fear of Nazis and Russians trump our need for diversity of opinion. The SCOTUS case-history regarding free speech is filled with the same fear logic.
Our state and corporate interests aren’t afraid of foreign bots fooling you – they’re afraid of losing their monopoly on the act.