A recent study by the Pew Research Center has revealed that 2/3 of all news related social media posts on Twitter are published by “bots” (accounts set up to post and share automatically). Furthermore, the 500 most-active bot accounts are shown to comprise at least 22% of tweets linking to popular news websites, compared to the 6% figure from the 500 most-active human run accounts.
The study goes on to report that there does not appear to be a bias (if bots could conceivably be biased) regarding reposts of articles with Liberal or Conservative audiences, with the most frequent posts linking to Centrist websites such as Forbes or Business Insider, while bots comprised 41% of links to Liberal sites such as NPR, NY Times, and CNN, and 44% of the links to Conservative sites such as NY Post, and Fox News. While we may feel relieved from this data, there is a broader issue: artificially generated outrage and the battle for our attention.
Do you remember Cecil the lion? Harambe? Gamergate? The UVA rape scandal?
What all these stories have in common is that they stirred outrage before all the facts had come in and that the stories were often purposefully made misleading by mainstream sources. If you wanted an honest take on the Gamergate narrative, as it was ongoing, the last place you would get it from is CNN.
However, outrage gets clicks, clicks generate ad revenue, ad revenue keeps these news outlets afloat. Rinse and repeat. It has nothing to do with the truth of a story, just that the story will generate a stream of contentious headlines over the span of a few weeks until the next story to be outraged over rears its conflated head.
Therein lies the deeper problem to all of this. The Millennial generation increasingly gets its information online, social media constituting a great deal of that activity, and news intended to outrage leads to outrageous results.
Walter Palmer, the dentist who legally shot Cecil, closed his practice after the storm of harassment and death threats; Harambe inspired millions to take to social media to condemn the zookeepers who saved a child’s life; gamers are now associated with misogynists and sexual harassers; and members of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity were harassed and had their fraternity vandalized for over a year after the publication of the now discredited Rolling Stone’s article.
These are just some of the more ridiculous stories. However, none of them would have garnered nearly the degree of attention, and subsequent action, that they received had social media not facilitated the outrage. What bots effectively do is saturate the online media landscape, making a story appear more relevant than it is, inevitably prompting some reactionary movement, which then creates more news stories that bots will repost. Again, rinse and repeat.
Now, try applying this level of artificially generated outrage to something like a presidency and you can start making sense of where the cheers of “Not my President!” originate, and how the 2016 American election bamboozled so many people.
90 years ago, Edward Bernays, psychologist, and father of public relations, began his book Propaganda with the following passage:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.
The matter of fact tone of this statement illustrates the prevalence Bernays put on psychological manipulation as a means of governing an ever-expanding population – habituation to socially accepted ‘truths’ plays a big role in this.
Today, it is even more relevant given what we now know about the affective tactics utilized by modern advertisers in manipulating our desires. Perhaps, nothing could illustrate this more than Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent trials in front of the American Congress where he attempted to justify Facebook’s use of AI in monitoring the habits, conversations, and opinions of Facebook users and the selling of that information to advertisers, political consulting firms, and God knows who else. However, in light of these revelations, we should amend part of Bernays’ insight for the state of information control, today. Unknown men no longer manipulate our minds: they are not manipulated by people at all, but rather AI and bots.