Martyn McLaughlin: Bots are drowning out real people on social media

The rise of fake accounts is a blow to social media's democratising power, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Are you being followed by robots on Twitter?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the rapid evolution of social networks from a conduit for ephemera and blurry cat photographs to the epicentre of day-to-day discourse proved problematic for journalists. 
I worked for one editor who was aghast at the idea of quoting someone’s Facebook status update or tweet in print, no matter if the poster was a public figure and what they had do say was newsworthy. Only by speaking to them and inviting them to repeat what they had typed verbatim would the copy pass muster.

It was a gumshoe forerunner of the modern two-step verification process, and labouring under such fogeyish mistrust of emerging communications platforms seemed an unnecessary toil. On occasion, of course, it had unintended benefits. Opening up a line of conversation brought elaboration, reflection, and nuance, qualities seldom found in a throwaway post, and all of which made for more thoughtful quotes, and a better story.

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A decade on, it seems inconceivable that the likes of Facebook or Twitter would be dismissed out of hand by a straitened fourth estate. They have become an integral fixture of the media ecosystem, a nerve signal through which government policy is set, factions are exposed, scandals erupt, and people bleat on endlessly about flags. The messages that are conveyed can be insincere or tendentious, but it was ever thus. What is important is that the legitimacy of the medium itself is no longer open to question. Or is it?

The recent forensic investigation by the New York Times detailing the opaque black market in phoney followers on Twitter strikes the latest blow against social media’s credibility. Just as tech giants are facing political heat over the proliferation of fake news, the revelation that just one little-known firm has bolstered the standing of politicians, academics, journalists, and celebrities by providing them with more than 200 million fake followers has muddied the waters further.

As the report pointed out, some calculations suggest that as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users - nearly 15 per cent of the total - are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, although the company itself disputes the figure.

Whatever the exact number, the consequences of the industrial scale by which these so-called bot brokers are working are ominous. The rise of bot brokers throws a spanner in the very cog which keeps social media turning: the implicit understanding that the interactions which play out in the ether are between real people.

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In the online world of affirmation and validation, it is only natural that our curiosity is piqued by someone with what appears to be a sizeable band of adherents. For a modest outlay, it is possible to recruit thousands of them at a time. The fact that most of these created accounts have limited biographies and little in the way of interactions is neither here nor there. Most people don’t bother to scrutinise, the numbers give a lasting first impression.

The result is that people with the means and desire to leverage the metrics so as to artificially inflate their online standing will rise above the fray. The added irony is that a sudden influx of fake followers is liable to beget more genuine followers.

This Black Mirror-esque turning of the tables damages trust further and leaves all of us uncertain as to whether an individual’s six-figure-strong follower base is a reflection of their wit and insight, or sheer desperation.

Not that those are the only variables at play. Without recourse to detailed data analysis of someone’s followers, it is nigh on impossible to know whether the quickfire accumulation of bots is a crude ploy on the part of the account owner, or a malicious smear orchestrated by one of their adversaries or competitors. Expect the latter to become more prevalent.

The upshot of all this is a direct challenge to supposedly democratising influence of social media. As New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, pointed out in the wake of the New York Times article: “The growing prevalence of bots means that real voices are too often drowned out in our public conversation. Those who can pay the most for followers can buy their way to apparent influence.”

It is tempting to suggest that the blame for all this lies with us as much it does with the bot brokers. After all, we assign qualitative merit to how many likes or retweets we receive and revel in a reality where none exists. But then again, the majority of people recognise social media’s advantages as well as its pitfalls, and are able to step back from its feedback loop.

No, the real guilty parties for this disruptive and destructive duplicity are the firms themselves. They have the knowledge to create algorithms to root out the problem overnight, yet lack the will to do so. The scourge of fake accounts is too convenient for those companies which depend on advertising revenue and who are able to reel out their latest record user numbers without even the most cursory of external checks.

There are some who may end up jettisoning social media altogether. That would be a hasty decision. It remains a valuable and stimulating arena. There is, however, a lesson to heed. We must pay less attention to the numbers and become even more discerning and sceptical - not only about what we read, but who is saying it. I’m sure my old editor would have approved.