Bot! Bot! Bot!
If you spent any time on social media during the last 5 years, you undoubtedly saw someone accuse another social account of being a “bot.” This increased greatly after the 2016 election, when reports about Russia’s shenanigans in the election led to the widespread belief that a lot of would-be people on the internet are, in fact, bots. There are lots and lots of actual bots on the internet. You meet them on Twitter and Tinder and Facebook; they watch YouTube videos and generate traffic to articles. It’s a pretty big problem for advertisers since it means they are effectively paying for meaningless ad impressions. Bots on social media can automatically share things and create an impression of virality that is pretend. This is a generation beyond the fake-follower-type-bot, which was designed to make you look more popular than you were so that you could attract real eyeballs.
But over the years, “bot” sort of grew into a criticism that meant “well, you might be a human technically, but you’re exhibiting bot behavior.”
It’s not like no one had ever called anyone a bot before. People used to call Obama supporters “Obots”—the implication being that they defended their precious president unthinkingly: like a robot.
But with the introduction of actual bots into the world, this got a little confusing. I genuinely do not know how many people who say “bot” believe the social account in question is literally a coded bot.
If you look at any large Twitter account, you’ll see that the second they tweet, some accounts immediately retweet them or quote tweet too quickly to be truly human. These accounts are real bots. Their purpose is not necessarily to espouse any political view or make someone look popular. These bots only exist to add to the follower-count of whoever is paying for them. In order to keep doing this, they must do one thing—survive the purge. Surviving the purge algorithm is their only goal. This is why they retweet. For a long time, the purge would pass them by because they looked like just another lemming who likes to retweet their favorite celebrities. But platforms are getting better at this everyday, and the purge is getting better at coming for them. They still do it, but it’s getting harder for the bots to survive.
A few years ago, a colleague of mine came into my office at Mother Jones to tell me about his “favorite Mother Jones bot.” He showed me the Twitter account. It retweeted probably 75% of Mother Jones stories, and the rest of its tweets were from similar liberal publications. So far, so bot. But, poking around, there were also idiosyncratic tweets and occasionally a few follow-up replies to other accounts that looked a bit like a conversation. (Yes, bots can be coded to do this, but it didn’t seem likely to me that someone would spend time on these evolved bot behaviors just for some random bot with 30 followers.)
“Buddy, I think this person is real,” I told him.
He didn’t believe me, and we set off on a search. We pieced together various details about this account and then used LexisNexis to match them to a real person. Not only did the person exist, but their spouse was a college professor, and they had a print subscription to our magazine.
Here’s what was really going on here: this person followed a few accounts, and when they saw something they liked or agreed with, they retweeted it. Since Mother Jones stories are designed to appeal to Mother Jones subscribers, this meant they retweeted our stories quite a lot! They seemed for the most part not to have many other things they wanted to say. This seems weird if you tweet all day, but in reality, the overwhelming majority of Twitter users never tweet.
This person, who my friend had slandered as a bot, was a real human, who, in their way, was doing what we all do on social media: defining ourselves and demonstrating that to the ether.
I am not a bot. But if I were a bot, I’d tell you I wasn’t a bot.2
Let’s say it’s Christmas Eve, and you’re a widower (your wife is dead). You work at a hospital. You work in an ER. You get off work late in the evening and you live in the northeast, so it’s snowing. You could take a cab home or you could take the train, but there is something about the night that makes you think, ‘ah, screw it, i’ll walk.’ And so you trudge through the empty streets. There are some drunken carolers in the distance, but for the most part, it is you, the closed shops, the falling snow, the bitter cold, and those memories and ambitions that accompany you no matter where you go. And then, all of a sudden—BAM: the sewer grate you hadn’t noticed you’d stepped on gives way and you plummet down into the darkest bits of the subway system. You think you’re dead. You have the sensation of expecting to die. But you don’t. Your vision goes dark, and you blackout. When you come to, it is Christmas morning, and a city worker is screaming to you from above. You wake.
You are not hurt. You find a ladder and climb up and out and you are so embarrassed that you convince the city worker not to call an ambulance. It’s still very early, and the streets are still very empty, but what few people you do pass seem happy. You walk the rest of the way to your home. You go up the elevator. You open the door to your apartment, and there your dead wife sits. “Hello,” she says. She looks as beautiful as you remember her: before cancer ate her away. She tells you that is she is not real, at least not really real. She tells you there was no kind subway worker who woke you up.
You ask what is going on. She says she doesn’t know.
“Are you a hallucination?” you ask.
“I think so,” she says. She strongly suspects you’ve had some sort of brain hemorrhage and are laying down in the hole hallucinating. You’ll probably die any minute now. But she smiles and says, “but not yet.”
And the minutes pass into hours and the hours pass into days, but you don’t go anywhere. You don’t die—like you should—in that hole. She’s just there with you again in your life. And you’re happy together. And you have all those moments that her cancer stole from you.
It doesn’t make any sense, but do you care? You can investigate it. You can go look in the hole. You can consult a priest. You can get a brain scan. You can you can you can you can do everything, but can you accept it? Can you say “I don’t care if i’m splayed out bleeding from my head in a hole and that this is the longest hallucination anyone has ever had before they died”? Can you say, “nothing I know about the world and science tells me it’s possible, but isn’t it maybe possible that I fell down the one magic hole in the one magic city and now my wife is back and I can spend my life with her happy”?
I don’t know! What would you do? It’s a question about you, not me. For myself, I think I would be haunted by the possibility—the likelihood—that it wasn’t real, and that over time, I would come undone because of that thought. I wouldn’t be able to accept the happiness presented to me by my senses and would think myself into a place where sense denies sensation.
And that would be dumb!
This is a thought game about your ability to accept the greatest happiness imaginable when you have reason to doubt its provenance. It’s the bizarro version of the thought game about accepting the existence of people verboten to you as people at all and not just bots. But at the end of the day, the real thought game is the meta one: what do any of these things say about you?
I inserted this post into an AI-text generator which is nominally supposed to use what I give it and spit out some similar stuff.
Instead, it sort of turned me into a communist:
The truth is, there are probably many people who have had enough of this bullshit for awhile now. The truth is, we should all be angry at those who do it to us. We should be angry at the corporations who make money off of our data by selling ads on our information. We should be angry at the people who use our data to sell us things like credit cards or even food (which they then profit from). We should be angry at the politicians who buy their way into office with our votes. We should be angry at the companies who put up billboards advertising products made using our data. We should be angry at the people who get rich off of our data through various forms of advertising.
We should be angry at the companies who pay for our data – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo…the list goes on and on.
In fact, we should be angry at everyone who profits from our data. And when we can no longer
I know this was written by an algorithm that is trying to finish this blog post for me, but, uh, I don’t agree with this! I don’t know if it makes it a straw man to argue with an AI, but I am not angry at any of these companies that “profit from our data.” I mean, for the most part, these are companies whose services are provided to me for free. They aren’t non-profits! They don’t just exist. Someone invented them, and someone invested in them, and they have business plans. Through the miracle of modern finance, these companies have found a way to provide me with amazing services and tools for the cost of zip. What a Christmas morning miracle that is!
This was such a weird AI addition, lol. Not only did it ascribe to me a political agenda that I do not hold, but it also made me angry! Look, buddy, I was just having some fun with these bot storylines!
Maybe the AI knows that moral expression does great engagement online?