Episode 561 - You are being manipulated

Dec 13, 2021

This interesting Quackcast topic was influenced by a DDer who has been subsumed by anti-CoVid conspiracy. This inspired me to delve into the reasons for the massive growth in these types of conspiracy and how the current state of the internet contributes to it. I had some theories, but I thought I should do some reading on the subject to see what the real reasons are rather than using guesses to fill the gaps like conspiracy thinkers tend to do. I was quite shocked by what I found.

Topics and Show Notes

There are really three main parts to the problem: 1. Gate-keeping, personalisation and curation of our online communication and viewing by big tech companies. 2. This curation tends to have the effect of polarising us and making our views more extreme than they are 3. Groups use these factors to manipulate people through the use of bots (in the form of fake users), as well as paid users with several accounts.

Gate keeping:
The majority of our online interaction is through only a few large companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, TikTok, Twitter, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon etc), they closely track every aspect of our online behavior and use it along with AI to customise and curate our online experience: the Facebook and Twitter feeds, suggested videos in YouTube, “personalised” Google search and so on, the same for the “friends” it suggests to us. None of that is nefarious or evil, it's just impersonal AI skewing what we see to keep us online longer and sell more ads. But this is also why their online services are free and often quite useful. It's actually quite crude and clunky, their AIs are terrible and obvious most of the time, suggested videos, news results, friends, product ads, and search results are just as often terrible as they can be useful.

Polarisation:
The friends, news stories, links, posts in Twitter and Facebook, videos on YouTube and TikTok that appear in our feeds are generally biased to what will get the most interaction and engagement from us; something that makes us angry like politics, or happy like celeb news for example. Researchers investigated this by creating neutral bots on Twitter. Beginning with “liking” the first random things suggested to them by Twitter, they then randomly “liked” subsequent things Twitter suggested to them. Each time Twitter would base what it suggested next on what had been liked, which meant that the neutral bots gradually had more and more extreme versions of whatever was initially randomly liked. If the initial thing had a slightly left leaning bent, in the end the suggestions were extreme and the same for right-wing and so on. In this way social media has a default tendency to radicalise us. This is part of the reason online debate is so polarised.

Manipulation:
The Problem is that it's very easy to manipulate this system and us as a consequence. It's very cheap to set up millions of bots as fake people and give them user accounts. I'm sure you've occasionally seen suspicious accounts that have tried to add you as a friend, people with names and preferences that don't fit their profile photos, these are generally poor people in West Africa and Pakistan who're paid to set up multiple profiles, basically the human version of bots, in an effort to circumvent anti-bot security measures.
The purpose of these fake accounts is manifold. They can be used to skew the kinds of news people see, spread fake rumours, sell products and scams, increase the profiles of certain people etc. This is done by having them all share the same phrases, hash tags, and links, and liking things, that in turn tricks the AIs that curate and personalise your feeds and searches into suggesting what the bots have promoted.

Researches have documented this activity from Russian and Chinese state controlled bot farms, it's also been the tactic of Islamic State (ISIL) to attract and radicalise people, spammers, scammers like Natural News and Mercola who sell fake health products and diet scams, multi level marketers, hackers, angry conspiracy theorists with agendas like the antivaxer crowd, and even just people out to make money from advertising with fake clickbait news stories about celebrities- You've all seen and clicked on those terrible ads at the bottom of news stories run by Zergnet, Taboola, and Outbrain. These always lead to low quality, often fake stories with lists that you click through. They're harmless but time wasting.

If you lacked scruples you could also use those tactics to increase the profile of your webcomic! In fact we can see it in the small scale in the way webcomic hosts like Taps and Webtoons manipulate their audiences: only recommending certain types of comic to them, promoting only those comics on their main page and elsewhere etc, this in turn forces creators to produce comics which look and feel the same way because it seems the only alternative available.

Online VS the real world
It's very important to remember that the online world Vs real world is a false dichotomy. There is ONLY the real-world. The internet is only a form of communication, but it is the dominant and most important form of communication which is why this stuff is so very important and dangerous. It has real world consequences, as seen with CoVid-19 conspiracies, Pizzagate and the invasion of the Capitol building, this idiocy results in mass deaths. Sites like Twitter, Youtube, Tiktok, and Facebook have been great sources of citizen journalism and alternative news, but unfortunately they're now very simple to manipulate and control. Where once they were a great alternative to polarising mainstream media, now that usefulness has been compromised.

Personally I'm all for neutrality and fact checking which is why I financially support the Web Archive, Skeptoid Media, Wikipedia, Snopes, and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (I bought their book). None of these sites get it right all the time, but they actively try to and they provide valuable resources for the rest of us to try and help keep the world honest and agenda free.


This week Gunwallace has given us the theme to The Ham - a quiet country road… golden sun rays barely caress the shadowed trees through the cold morning mist. An old truck bounces and jounces along on stiff suspension, past brushing branches, roaring through the stillness. Beautifully evocative notes draw us in, then the tune excites with plucked banjo and burning, distorted electric guitar.

Topics and shownotes

Links

Sources:
In Defense of Truth - https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/usdoepub/377/
Social Bots and Social Media Manipulation in 2020: The Year in Review - https://arxiv.org/abs/2102.08436
Fake Online News Spreads Through Social Echo Chambers - https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fake-online-news-spreads-through-social-echo-chambers/
Artificial Intelligence and Echo Chambers - https://www.counterterrorismgroup.com/post/artificial-intelligence-and-echo-chambers
Neutral bots probe political bias on social media - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-25738-6
Skeptoid Media - https://skeptoid.com

Featured comic:
Pep Squad - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/news/2021/dec/07/featured-comic-pep-squad/

Featured music:
The Ham - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/the_ham/ - by Hansrickheit, rated M.

Special thanks to:
Gunwallace - http://www.virtuallycomics.com
Tantz Aerine - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/user/Tantz_Aerine/
Ozoneocean - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/user/ozoneocean
Banes - https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/user/Banes/

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