Life Imitates Bots and Trolls: Deceiving the Public through Fake Crowd Creation and Other Lies
Fake crowd creation is one of the most popular methods used to deceive the public in social media and in traditional media.
Fake crowd creation is powerful enough to change our political beliefs, our elections and our government. Opinions can be deceptively made to appear as if they are widely held when they are not.
I’m not a number crunching person. I leave that to others who excel at it. I’m a psychologist who knows a lot about how the human mind and emotions respond to environments. I analyze deception in news in a broad way, noticing trends and strategies that are obvious without number crunching — but obvious only for someone who knows how and where to look.
Here’s a clear example of a fake crowd. There was a huge crowd of people making anti-net neutrality comments recently on the FCC web site. Was it a real crowd? No. It was a fake crowd.
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That was a case where the deception was discovered. There are many cases where it remains unclear whether the crowd is fake or real. For example, Facebook started marking some news articles as “disputed”, as part of an effort to slow the spread of fake news. People were clicking on the disputed articles more — not less — as a result of the “disputed” tag. So Facebook changed their system to a new one, that appears to work better. People are sharing the disputed articles less, with the new system.
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However, something is unclear about the crowd that shared the article more often when it was marked as “disputed.” I wonder whether that crowd was a real crowd or a fake crowd. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, in this instance, since the new system works better. However, I wonder how easily social media companies’ systems of dealing with fake news can be subverted by the very propagandists the systems are meant to control.
It seems that the only thing propagandists would need to do, to subvert controls on propaganda, would be to hire trolls and to program bots, that would give the impression that a fake news control system is not working. For example, in the above case, the trolls and bots could keep clicking all day on articles with “disputed” tags, in order to get Facebook to think the “disputed” tag system was not working. Thus they could get Facebook to stop using that system. I wonder if Facebook knows whether the people who clicked on “disputed” articles were paid trolls, bots, or real people.
Another recent example of the effects of a fake crowd is the Vanity Fair magazine video, an apparent attempt at humor, that was dismissive toward Hillary Clinton. It sparked outrage from many Clinton supporters.
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Hillary Clinton bashing is so popular in media that successful writing careers have been built on bashing Clinton in articles, on TV and on social media. Consider what happens on Twitter.
People on Twitter like Peter Daou, who admire Hillary Clinton, often see their Twitter time lines fill up with hundreds of viciously insulting comments from trolls. There are also photoshopped gifs of Clinton behind bars in a prison jumpsuit — and other depictions that make that one look tame.
I feel sorry for the anti-Clinton video creators at Vanity Fair. If one looks at social media, or even mainstream media, it appears that Hillary Clinton bashing is a no-lose proposition, a theme that would propel magazine subscriptions to new highs. How were the video creators to know that this was partly a fake crowd, an illusion?
After the video was released, some non-bots and non-trolls — the humans who voted for Clinton — started making ourselves heard. These were not Hillary haters, and they were angry with the folks at Vanity Fair.
Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016 by millions of votes. She has a lot of admirers. She also has a lot of detractors, some of whom are human, and many of which are trolls and bots. Some are humans who became Hillary bashers because they joined the fake crowd of trolls and bots, thinking it was a human crowd.
Still others are writers who once wrote, or said on TV, something negative about Hillary Clinton. Then these bashers watched their own popularity skyrocket. TV producers wanted those popular Clinton bashers on their channels. Publishers wanted those click bait articles bashing Clinton. Apparently publishers didn’t think much about whether the “people” clicking on those articles were bots, or paid Right Wing or Russian trolls.
I have written elsewhere about some of the reasons why our most popular political meme seems to be the bashing of the candidate who won the popular vote for president by millions.
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One more example of a fake crowd is an ad campaign on TV. A pro-Trump group recently launched a one million dollar Thank You, President Trump ad campaign on TV stations. The group is obviously spending their million dollars to create the impression that there is a large crowd of ordinary Americans who feel grateful to President Trump.
If enough people start believing there is such a crowd, then real people will join the supposed crowd. If so, the imitation crowd will do what it was designed to do — to create a real crowd.
A lot of advertising is like this. In the case of social media, armies of bots and trolls give the impression of a huge crowd all cheering together for the same wonderful team or opinion or booing at the same terrible team or opinion.
People want to join or root for the team or opinion that’s getting all the cheers. It’s as contagious as wanting to eat at the most popular restaurant. It must be great, or else why all the cheers? People start to wonder what’s wrong with the team that’s constantly being booed. There must be something wrong with that team, or else why all the booing?
This worked quite well as an election winning strategy for Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election. People thought “Hillary Clinton must be a terrible candidate, with a lot of baggage. Otherwise, why would there be constant criticism of her everywhere I look?”
People in the U.S. are sitting ducks for this sort of deception — easily fooled by fake crowds, as well as by other propaganda. Here’s why.
Americans, almost from the moment of our conception, are exposed to the sounds of advertising — to its tones, its rhythms, its pacing. Advertising comes from radio, TV, and Internet podcasts, videos etc. Once Americans get out of the womb, in addition to the sounds, we’re surrounded by the pictures, emotions and words from advertising.
We swim in advertising like fish swim in water. It feels like a normal part of our environment. Some people first become aware of how pervasive it is, only when they vacation in a wilderness area without cell phone, TV or Internet coverage. It seems so normal that we only notice it if it becomes absent. We’re like fish being thrown out of our usual cloudy water into clean water.
Political propaganda is another form of advertising, of which we are only faintly aware, because we are so completely immersed in advertising. In our consumer society, the effects of advertising on us are strong. That goes for political advertising too.
Both the average citizen and mainstream media are incredibly naïve about deception from propagandists pushing agendas. For example, the folks at the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets still have no clue how much their actions contributed to getting Donald Trump elected. Nate Silver has written about this.
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In 2016, Steve Bannon, using the Mercers’ money, played mainstream media and social media like fiddles, immersing them in propaganda that bashed Hillary Clinton, getting likely Democratic voters to decide not to vote for Clinton. For example, Bannon and the Mercers used a supposedly nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization to sponsor the writing of the book Clinton Cash, and to get excerpts of it into the New York Times and Washington Post. A crowd of Hillary bashers was created, by using false and distorted information that even the New York Times printed as if it were true.
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Bannon and the Mercers may actually believe part of their own Right Wing propaganda, which would make them more effective sales people for it. Yet we were already immersed in Right Wing propaganda from talk radio, television and Internet long before anyone ever heard of Steve Bannon or Robert Mercer.
Propaganda can mushroom over time, as it pulls more people into a distorted belief system, and some of those people become creators or financiers of more propaganda. Others run as politicians, on a platform that they may not even realize is based on lies. Still others enter the Right Wing media bubble as writers or pundits. The many people who live inside the Right Wing echo chamber are always surrounded by a crowd that assures them that this information is true and that their causes are virtuous. We ignore these echo chambers at our own peril.
The situation of mainstream media being pulled into airing and publishing propaganda so easily, should prove to anyone with their eyes open that it isn’t just stupid people who are fooled by propaganda, as is commonly believed.
It isn’t just stupid people who are fooled by propaganda. That belief could not be more wrong. New York Times managers, editors and readers are not stupid people They are simply naïve, like most Americans, about propaganda.
Traditional mainstream media editors and producers are asleep at the wheel. They plod along in their habit of seeking “balance” by “covering both sides”, even if one side is lies. That habit creates a crowd of viewers, listeners, or readers who believe lies.
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Mainstream media also bend to the GOP outrage machine, trying to prove to their Republican critics that they are not Left Wing biased. In doing so, they bend over so far Rightward that they end up with a Right Wing bias. Here is my essay on the GOP outrage machine.
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Another issue with mainstream media is that they are in business to make money. An easy way to make money is by entertaining people. Media can do this by doing “horse race” political coverage, that is, by trying to make the two sides seem more equal than they are, and the race seem more close than it is or should be, in order to make events seem more exciting. They also can entertain by disproportionately focusing attention on an entertaining political candidate.
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Social media presents unique challenges. Since much of it is run by computer algorithms, it’s a lot harder to see many of the situations that are occurring. A TED Talk by techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci contains some interesting information about the risks of deception by propagandists on social media.
The Microsoft AI chatbot that quickly turned into a Nazi, due to interaction with Nazis on the Internet, may be the social media equivalent of traditional mainstream media’s “covering both sides” — as if they are all equally credible and valid. The results quickly made it clear that the results of doing this can be quite destructive.
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Microsoft wisely ended that bot project, saving us all from whatever new Nazis this AI might have created in the future. Ending that project puts Microsoft far ahead of mainstream media in its understanding of propaganda. Microsoft seems to be ahead of Twitter in this area too.
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When media such as New York Times “cover both sides” even if one side is lies, the results are similar to those from the former Microsoft AI. These media are creating crowds of people who believe lies, by treating lies as equal in credibility to truth.
Another example of fake crowd is Leftist Twitter. It looks very similar to the Alt-right, except it’s Bernie Sanders, rather than Trump, who is idolized. Just as is true of the Alt-right, most of the Leftist Twitter crowd will believe almost any lie told about Hillary Clinton or about any centrist Democrat, as long as the lie reflects negatively on that Democrat.
However, very seldom do I meet a Leftist in real life who has so many beliefs that are similar to those of the Alt-right. How did Leftists on Twitter get to be so similar to the Alt-right? Are they a fake crowd?
Did Twitter’s group of human Leftists become similar to the Alt-right, because the human Leftist crowd started following the role models of a fake crowd? Perhaps the humans thought the trolls and bots were the typical Bernie Sanders supporters the bots and trolls were pretending to be— people whom the humans thought they ought to imitate if they wanted to fit in well with their chosen political tribe. That seems to have led to constantly growing real crowds who bash every word or action by every mainstream Democrat as irredeemably evil, stupid, corrupt or greedy.
That’s the problem here, in a nutshell. Life imitates bots — thus Dividing and Conquering real citizens.
People who have studied Russian trolls and bots note that those who control them try to sow division among groups of Americans.
If anyone wants to sow division within the political Left, it would be easy to do so, by creating a fake crowd of Far Leftist trolls and bots who are angry, distrustful and extremely insulting toward mainstream Democrats — exactly what we have on Twitter right now.
If Russia or the Alt-right want to convert Leftists to the Alt-right, judging from Twitter, it looks as if they’re almost done now. The Leftists on Twitter do believe in a few social programs like Medicare for all or free college tuition. But their typical attitudes toward the Democratic party are identical.
Looking again to the mainstream media’s issues with fake crowds, mainstream media wants clickable articles. Advertisers want to advertise their products on the same page with clickable articles, in publications that provide such articles.
Advertisers may have no idea if the huge number of “readers” of e.g. Hillary Clinton bashing articles, or “readers” of poor disadvantaged down and out Trump voter interview articles are actually trolls and bots. Maybe the New York Times doesn’t either.
Is it a real crowd, or a fake crowd that keeps clicking on the endless interview articles about poor Rust Belt Trump voters who still support him, no matter what he does? Are they trolls or bots? They might be. Pro-Trump groups benefit if Trump’s supporters are constantly and repeatedly portrayed in a sympathetic way, to the exclusion of all other groups of voters.
On the other hand, it is possible that real humans are clicking, because they are wondering why Trump supporters still support him. The answer to that question is simple and obvious, but it is not acceptable in American culture.
Many of Trump’s supporters still support him because they are influenced by Right Wing media propaganda. But American culture has a blind spot about the power of propaganda. So it’s possible that humans click on the articles because they keep looking for the answer to why Trump’s supporters remain loyal — not the real answer, but an answer they feel comfortable accepting.
Reporters are also clueless about propaganda’s effects. We know that they are clueless because they almost never ask the interviewees what their primary sources of news are. The reporters’ failure to ask this, implies that one’s source of news has no influence on one’s political beliefs.
It looks as if someone with enough money could easily control much of the content and bias of our nation’s news. They could simply pay armies of trolls, and program armies of bots, to click all day every day, on whatever kinds of articles their political group wants to see published. Writers who write such articles would think “I’ve struck a gold mine here” and would submit more articles with similar themes to news publications, which would eagerly lap them up. They would become popular writers very fast.
If bots and trolls make huge numbers of clicks on articles about chosen themes, this could convince media outlets and their advertisers that these are the most popular types of articles to keep publishing. Advertisers might have no idea that the high click rate publication they’re paying to advertise in, has few real customers capable of buying products, but instead has “readers” who are mostly bots or trolls.
Even real crowds on the internet pose a danger when they quickly spread destructive behavior. For example, many people who have low empathy and are quick to attack others, hang out on the Internet. Of course they do. Who would hang out with such a person in real life? However, since such people are in abundance on the Internet, they constantly role model their behaviors. Others may think these are normal Internet behaviors, and may imitate them.
The spread of such behavior has poisoned large segments of the Internet.
This kind of fake crowd was originally a group of real people, but it mushroomed into a larger crowd, due to people imitating these role models. Some fake crowds that are used for political propaganda purposes, however, may have begun with no authentic humans at all, but with only trolls paid to lie and programmed bots.
Much of the time, we may not be able to tell if a crowd that surrounds us is real or fake. Yet humans imitate one another constantly, often without thinking about it. We need to be aware of fake crowd risks. If we aren’t aware, the fate of our nation could be determined by fake crowds — perhaps even by fake crowds created by a foreign government. We would do well to pay attention to what kinds of crowds or tribes are being created, and what kinds of behaviors and attitudes are being spread.
If we citizens want to be free to determine the fate of our nation, we will have to find ways to stop falling into fake crowd traps. We will have to find ways to make conscious choices, rather than to just unconsciously go along with crowds that could easily be fake.
Here’s an update, for any of you who want to look at how fake crowd creation happens. The astroturfed #WalkAway movement was doing it at the time I originally wrote this article, in 2018. Here is an article about them.
Pro-Trump & Russian-Linked Twitter Accounts Are Posing As Ex-Democrats In New Astroturfed Movement
#WalkAway from this deceptive propaganda campaign
Here’s an article about the current similar “Both parties are the same” trolls that are highly active now, in the lead up to the November 2020 election. This includes what you can do, if you want to be an anti-troll on social media yourself.